"... we suspect our instruments. We have learned that we do not see directly, but mediately, and that we have no means of correcting these colored and distorting lenses which we are, or of computing the amount of their errors. Perhaps these subject lenses have a creative power..."
-- from "Experience" in Emerson's Essays
"...sensible people will get through life by rule of thumb as they may interpret it ... Take any fact, and reason upon it to the bitter end, and it will ere long lead to this as the only refuge from some palpable folly."
-- from The Way of All Flesh by Samuel Butler
"The soul is a prism
That casts rainbows
--from Skeleton Key by Rex Sexton
Part 1: Big Questions
Creation Story for the 21st Century
One Beautiful Moment
Where There's a Will
Listening to Life with a Tin Ear
The Abraham Effect: The Future of Humanity Depends on You
Pep Talk to Myself as I Get Older and Time Goes Faster
The Time Between Time
Is Reality Discontinuous?
Moving Beyond the Limitations of Science
An Ultimate Unit of Space and the Need for a New Calculus
Does Dark Matter?
Does Light Matter?
The End-Game Generation Seeks Meaning
The Stages of Man
Truth and Consequences
Scared to Life
Death as Moving from One Room to Another
Why Do You Pray?
Part 2: Identity, Memory, and Communication
Names and Naming
Language: Anarchy, Dialogue, and Understanding
Memory Clusters: Trying ot rEscue the Past
Memory and Sex
Random Thoughts about Thought
Coping with a Brain that Changes Over Time
Context, Meaning, and Language
Connecting Without Words
Your Signature and Your Unique Identity
Odor and Identity, Perfume as Infidelity Training, I Stink Therefore I am
The Nostalgia of Tomorrowland
Philosophic Insight from the Blind
William James and Laura Bridgman
Multiplicity of Animal Languages
Part 3: Understanding the World We Live In
In the Beginning Was the Need to Eat and Drink
The Future of War
Is Entropy and Illusion?
The Niche Theory of Evolution
Slavery and Industrialization
The Day After the Day After Tomorrow
How to Save the Bahamas and Maybe the World as Well
Why Didn't God Make Little Green Mammals?
Did Large Dinosaurs Have Two Brains?
Alternate 'War of the Worlds' Plots
Part 4: Politics and Government
How to Fix Congress? Eliminate Seniority
How to Fix Congress? Limit the Powers of Leaders
Long-overdue Constitutional Amendment
The Role of Vice President
Delay, Rumination, and Compromise in Government
A PRISM Solution
Message to Hong Kong Protesters - Rolling Boycott
Tax Credits for National SErvice?
Selling Money − An Alternative to Taxes
Make It Easy to Make Charitable Contributions at Tax Time
Certification for Panhandlers
"Cultural Citizenship" − an Alternatie Form of Goverment Made Possible by the Internet
How to Deal with Dictators
How to Make the US Postal Service Competitive
Longevity and Governance
Part 5: Literature, Reading, and Writing
Why I Write
Aphorisms about Writing and Rewriting
Advice to a Memoirist
Why Do We Read/Write/Watch Stories?
Binge Reading Shakespeare
In Just-Spring and Hemingway
Today's Youth and Reading
The Western Canon of Literature
Reading and the Zerg
When Story Matters More Than FAct
The Mothers of Fact
Reinterpreting Greek Myth
Literary Periods and Man's Changing Image of Himself
Part 6: The Double-Edged Impact of Technology
The Importance of Taking the Easier Path
The Curse of Moore's Law
Thoughts on the Significance of Ebooks
The Internet and the Human Spirit
Part 7: History
The Myth of Future Shock
Trigonometry and American Independence
The Rise, Progress and Termination of the American Revolution
Taking a Fresh Look at Will and Ariel Durant's Story of Civilization
The History of Herodotus
The Slavery that Was Rome in Plautus, Terence, and Petronius
World War II Legacy
Movable Sails Could Have Changed the Course of History
What the Hebrew Alphabet Tells Us
Predictable and Disastrous Belief in Magic
Part 8: Business and Product Ideas
How to Facilitate Car Recalls
Print Obituaries in Large Type
Advice for Rental Car Comanies
Outdated School Reunions
Customer Service 101
Do-It Yourself Alphabet Book
Independent Agencies for Bank Business?
Engineering Question − Windmills and Walls
How to Cope with Reduced Weight on the Moon
Cigarettes − Why Not Put a Filer on the Other End?
Why Not Save a Hair?
Intelligence Test Wishlist
Part 9: Everyday Life − How to Live, How to Cope
Exemplary People: the Machinist and the Postal Clerk
Free-Style Time Management: Done List Instead of To-Do List
How to Expand Time
The Energy Cycle
Tangible Goods vs. Experience
How to Fight Procrastination
The "lenses" in this book are essays that look at knotty questions from unusual angles. They are my way of trying to ponder imponderables.
I need to know who I am and why I am and how my life might matter in the context of those who came before and those who will come after. But the answers offered by religion feel insufficient, and scientific knowledge has advanced to the point that it is beyond the understanding of laymen. It would be wonderful to participate in the vast endeavor of scientific discovery and make a contribution, but the advancement of science will not end in my lifetime and will probably never end. I need answers that make sense here and now.
Many of these lenses derive from my belief that, as individuals and as a species, self-regulating mechanisms push us toward balance and reason and compassion. Our worst experiences and dreams can help nudge us in the right direction as if some force were trying to navigate a huge ship down a river, with the crudest of controls − a push this way, then a push that way. Toward what goal?
Sometimes inspiration isn't a matter of stimulating new ideas, so much as confirming and clarifying thoughts considered earlier. In my eclectic reading, I sometimes stumble on a passage that feels right, not as a discovery of something new, but rather as a clear and cogent expression of what I believed before, and that stimulates me to take that thought in a new direction.
Such was the case with a passage from Boethius, who wrote in the sixth century. In prison, awaiting execution at the random whim of King Theodoric of Italy, Boethius tried to make sense of life. He concluded that infinity, eternity, and chance reduce everything we might do to insignificance.
The endeavor to try to understand the nature of everything is unending. That is just another aspect of infinity/eternity no single breakthrough, no individual contribution matters in the long run, because the process of discovery never ends. There's never a moment when the answer is found. Every answer gives rise to new questions, which lead to new insights.
Yes, part of why we exist, presuming there is a why, must be to participate in trying to make the world a better place than we found it, in trying to advance knowledge, or in trying to help those who might someday do so.
But another important role, one which becomes all the more important the older we get, is striving to make personal sense of the world we live in and our role in it. I will never understand the absolute nature of anything, but I can arrive at a personal understanding building context through reading and experience, making personal mind maps to help me recognize relationships and interconnections, arriving at personal answers to the big questions, answers that help me deal with day-to-day reality and to arrive at a sense of fulfillment, so that the ordinary tasks and challenges of life make sense to me in a self-built context.
From this personal perspective, infinity and eternity are positive, not negative. Every moment in time is in the middle of all time, just as every point in space is in the middle of all of space.
I, just like everyone who has ever lived, stand at the center of the universe. So I strive to find truth and meaning within the fabric and context of my life.
In practical terms, this means that I need not read and strive to understand everything written by great thinkers. Rather I read authors whose works resonate with me, whose thoughts stimulate follow-on thoughts of my own.
I'm on a personal quest to try to understand what matters to me as an individual, living here and now.
(From an email to my granddaughter Adela)
Other people know physics and biology much better than I do. This is what I understand from what I've read and heard and figured out from trying to make sense of all the pieces. This is what I think about how the universe came to be and where we fit in the overall scheme of things.
Imagine you have a huge bubble ring and lots of soapy water and all the time imaginable to blow bubbles.
Most of your bubbles pop right away before they are fully formed. Lots come out small and pop soon. And a few get big and drift away and are beautiful.
You keep blowing bubbles for years, for billions of years and you can keep blowing them for billions of years in the future. You're an absolutely amazing bubble blower.
Now imagine that instead of bubbles of soap, you are making bubbles of space-time, the stuff that makes the existence of all stuff possible. And one of your bubbles is a grand-prize winner. It keeps getting bigger and bigger. All the conditions are right this time. When you blow billions and billions of bubbles even something ridiculously unlikely will happen sooner or later in all of eternity a once-in-a-million shot will happen many times.
This bubble lasts for 14 billion years and keeps expanding and might continue for billions of years to come. That bubble becomes the whole universe.
On the surface of that bubble, there form galaxies and stars and planets, billions and billions of them. And on one of those planets, life forms and evolves over three and a half billion years, from one-cell creatures to dogs and cats and monkeys and people.
Imagine that everything and everyone in this universe is connected to everyone and everything else. We're all on that same ever-expanding bubble, and we're connected by forces like gravity, and we're connected by history as well.
When our big bubble started, all that existed were the simplest of atoms and molecules and particles. Over time, these little pieces of matter randomly came together by the push and pull of forces like electricity and gravity and formed stars. And the stars became so dense and so hot that new kinds of atoms and molecules formed inside them. And some of those stars got so big that they exploded as "super novas". And in those explosions new more complex atoms and molecules were created kinds of matter that are essential to life as we know it were formed in the explosion of stars.
In other words, the matter that makes up your body was created in the explosion of stars.
You might say that stars died that life as we know it could exist.
Space and time are vast, and we seem small and insignificant next to all that vastness.
On the other hand, it took all that vastness of time and space for us to come into existence, for us to be who we are here and now.
In other words, the bigger the universe, the more important we are, because it took all of that to make us.
Then the question becomes what should we do about it?
If we're all that important, what should we do with our lives, with our effort and our thinking and our working together and our caring for and about one another to make the creation and evolution of the universe worth the effort?
God imagined one fleeting moment − a butterfly fluttering above a pond at sunset. And He created the universe − all the past and all the future − to make that moment happen.
Any moment, in all its detail, would require the miracle of all of creation.
The creation of any being would require all of creation.
Perhaps there was no beginning and will be no end, and every moment we witness the miraculous creation of everything and everyone.
We equate consciousness with rational thought and we can correlate thought with brain activity. And when there is no brain activity and hence, presumably, no thought, we define a person as dead − brain dead.
But we can act without thinking, and we can think one thing, make a conscious decision to do it, but do something else, even the opposite, surprising ourselves. In other words, the will, though associated with thought and a subject of thought, is separate from it.
Is the brain necessarily the seat of the will?
Language associates will with emotion and intuition and suggests. Language suggests that the will is centered somewhere other than the brain, for instance the heart or gut. Language also associates will with the vague, but persistent, concepts of "soul, "self," "spirit," and "life force."
Does the will necessarily cease at the same time that thought does? Might someone who is declared brain dead still have will, including the will to live?
Also, linguistically as well as in religion and myth, the soul or spirit is separate from the body and persists even when the body dies. So why presume that soul/self/spirit/will has a distinct physical location in the body, as thought does?
Thanks to my friend Dave Lupher for remembering this related quote:
"Your second paragraph reminds
me of Paul: "I do not understand my own actions. For I
do not do what I
want, but I do the very thing I hate." Roman 7:15. There
of this in Euripides and Ovid."
I used to envy those born with perfect pitch. Unlike me, they could appreciate music to its fullest. I couldn't tell if a piano was out of tune or distinguish great from mediocre performances. But now I've reached an age when instead of regretting my limitations, I can be proud of them.
Perfect pitch is a curse and a tin ear a blessing. To someone with perfect pitch anything less than a perfect performance is painful to listen to. Yes, such a person can appreciate subtleties beyond my ken, but that same person might not appreciate and enjoy the vast majority of what passes for music for the rest of us.
I can appreciate a flawed performance on a piano that is out of tune. I can enjoy sing-alongs and amateur singing and karaoke and informal musical events. I can delight in whistling while I walk. My opportunities for musical pleasure are far greater because of my tin ears.
Similarly, I can appreciate and savor ideas that aren't thoroughly developed. I can enjoy a story, a book, a movie that is good but not great. I have everyday, non-professional expectations.
The world is far too complex to understand in detail. And I'd rather explore many subjects and try to arrive at a practical working understanding of many than devote myself to one narrow field and never arrive at certainty or complete knowledge of it.
Rather than seeking definitive answers to the "big questions", I want to arrive at personal answers − answers that make sense on the scale of where and when I live, rather than the vastness of infinity and eternity. I need lenses that help me look at the world with a perspective of immediacy, from the context of daily life.
Let's enjoy what we can know. Let's enjoy life as best we can, glorying in the imperfection of our tin ears.
Chains of events that influenced my life and led me to become who I am were highly unlikely - one coincidence happening after another. If any event in the chain had not unfolded just the way it did, everything would have turned out differently.
If you ever fell in love, think about the events leading up to that moment. After the fact, the events feel inevitable. It is difficult to imagine how your life could have gone if those events had not occurred when and how they did. All the pieces fell into place miraculously.
The apparent likeliness of events depends on your perspective when recalling them. You know all the details related to coincidences that have affected the course of your own life. And the more you know about an event, the more unique it seems to you. Those same events when seen by someone else and considered separately, rather than in sequence, are subject to the laws of probability and seem ordinary and expected.
Every time you toss a coin, the probability of heads is 50%, regardless of the results of previous tosses. But a long chain of events such as heads, heads, tails, heads, tails, tails, tails... defies analysis. Only when you isolate a variable and simplify the context with a generalized perspective do the laws of probability apply.
According to Bernoulli's Law, one of the basic principles of probability, it is possible to predict with great accuracy the average outcome of many similar events, but it is impossible to predict, with certainty, any single event.
In other words, the more you know about a specific event and the chain of circumstances that led to it, the more unique and miraculous that event appears.
Known in detail, all events are highly unlikely, the result of multiple chains of coincidence.
Every moment of every life is unique and miraculous.
Just as the entire Jewish people are descended from Abraham, the people who inhabit Earth a thousand years from now may all be descended from you.
You have two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents. The number of your ancestors doubles with every generation. Counting backwards 1000 years, about 36 generations ago, you had about 69 billion ancestors, which is that's 2 to the power of 36. But at that time, there were only about 50 million people alive in Europe, meaning that distant cousins mated with one another.
There were people alive in Europe a thousand years ago who were the ancestors of everyone of European descent who is alive today. In other words, everyone of European descent alive today is a cousin of everyone else, and probably in multiple ways due to distant cousins marrying, often without knowing they were cousings.
Fast forward a thousand years, taking into account that people are much more mobile today than they were a thousand years ago. In the year 3000, every human being alive on Earth, if the human race survives that long, will be a descendant of people who are alive today; and if you are a parent, there's a chance that everyone alive a thousand years from now will have genes that passed through you.
That is an awesome responsibility.
Be careful. Be proud. The future humanity race depends on you.
We perceive time very differently than machines record it. Would it be an advance in artificial intelligence if we programmed a computer so it could mimic human subjective time?
There is wide variation in time as subjectively experienced, ranging from sensory-deprived boredom to stress-induced trauma. A second can feel like and be remembered like an hour or a day or a lifetime. There are probably limits to what can be stored in short-term memory. In moments of life-or-death crisis that limit is broken and short-term spills over to long-term, and the mass of data that is perceived gets indelibly imprinted in long-term memory and takes up far more memory capacity than is normal.
You could think in terms of time itself going faster or slower, like varying speeds of the Now turntable. Or imagine that stress can trigger the brain as well as the body to operate in exceptional ways, enabling the perception, processing and storing of far more data far more quickly than normal.
This notion of variable subjective time or variable speeds of time reminds me of a radio receiver tuning in to different frequencies. It also reminds me of the video series Stranger Things which triggered this sequence of thought. In that story El/Eleven moves to another dimension or set of dimensions, the UpSideDown, through sensory deprivation.
I'm also reminded of a story called "Never-Ending Now" which I wrote back in college. In popular wisdom, when you are near death, your whole life flashes before your eyes. I imagined that in the moments before death that might happen over and over again, that time expands subjectively, in a variant of Zeno's Paradox. Just as Achilles never catches up with the turtle, you, subjectively, never reach death. That is the limit that you get closer and closer to but never reach. To anyone else, your timeline ends. You die. But to you, you keep getting closer and closer forever. Or perhaps the Now needle which is your self leaves the groove which has been your time or moves to another.
Physical time goes at a constant pace. But subjective time - the time you sense and remember - is relative. To a two-year-old, one year is half of his life. To a fifty-year-old, one year is 2% of the life he has led. Hence, as you get older, time seems to go faster. And the present seen in the context of an ever-expanding past becomes more and more insignificant.
But you can choose to perceive time differently.
A novelist chooses the perspective from which to tell a story, and the success of the story depends on that choice. Similarly, you can choose the perspective from which to view your own life. If you wish, you can keep your focus on the near-term, the here-and-now, and the near future.
You should do what matters to you, and accomplish what you can, taking pride in it in the context of the present and the near future, not in terms of the distant past and the distant future.
You should do what you can do in the time allotted to you. That is your role in life. That's where you may find the meaning of life.
In the summer of 2012, driving back to Boston from Cape Cod, I came close to death.
I was alone, driving a van packed tight with stuff we had brought to the Cape for a two-week vacation. My wife, Barb, was cleaning the cabin and would be following in our other car in about an hour.
Three miles from the Sagamore Bridge over the Cape Cod Canal, I realized that my brakes didn;t work at all.
The traffic around me was travelling at 60 miles an hour. The distance between me and the car in front of me was a car length. The car behind me was also a car length away. There were cars to the right of me as far as the eye could see. To the left of me there was a metal barrier.
The car ahead of me slowed. I gently tapped my brakes. Nothing happened. I tapped again quickly. Nothing. There was no resistance to my foot pressure. Now I was just a couple feet away from the car in front of me. I stomped down on the brake peddle, and the peddle went all the way to the floor with no resistance and no change in speed.
Fortunately, the car ahead picked up speed. We were going downhill. I was coasting.
Options rushed through my mind.
I tried to downshift, but the gears were locked.
I considered using the emergency parking brake. But if I stopped suddenly, the car behind me would slam into me and I'd end up in a pile-up.
I considered turning off the ignition. But the van I was driving had power steering. If the engine turned off, the power steering would shut off as well.
After what felt like an hour but probably was less than a minute, around a curve, the hill ended and I found myself on a slight incline. Then, a grass median strip opened up to my left. I turned left onto the grass and the car started slowing down. In what felt like another hour but was only a few seconds, the car came to a stop, a few hundred yards from the bridge.
My heart was racing. I saw the van, the grass, the road, the traffic, the beautiful blue sky with a clarity I had never seen before. My mind was muddled, but I was feeling ever so high, so relieved. I was alive. I had never before felt so much alive.
(excerpt from from my story collection Chiang Ti Tales)
Long ago, before man made books to talk across centuries, a young man, Chiang Ti, left his village in the valley and went up to the mountains. With all the comings and goings in the village in the valley, no one had time to think beyond the next harvest. But Chiang Ti needed to know why the sun rose, and why the grass grew, and why men lived and grew and died. So he went up, close to the sky and the stars and the sun, up to the mountains.
The following spring, Chiang Ti returned to the village with an answer. "A human life has no beginning and no end," he said. "The time of the sun and the stars is not the time of man. His mind has a time of its own.
"An hour's sleep is but a moment. And the second before a race begins can seem to last for hours. Imagine a condemned man on the scaffold with the rope around his neck. To him, how long does that moment last? What thoughts run through his mind? One minute to live, half a minute, a quarter, an eighth... And what minute, half minute, quarter, eighth... did you begin to be? The promise of eternal life was in the endless moment of conception. It's fulfillment is in the endless moment of death.
"What need is there for laws, judges, prisons? The final judgment, hell, and paradise are within you. Just remind people of the horrors or pleasures that could await them in that last endless moment, and there will be no more crime. All will live in peace and love."
But the doctor said, "Many people die in their sleep, unaware that death is approaching. Does your theory apply in that case? Or do those people simply die, with no heaven and no hell?"
Chiang Ti suffered a century of frustration. A moment later, he turned and walked back to the mountains to look within himself for other answers.
I enjoy binge-watching video series. I used to do this with DVDs, now I do it streaming using Netflix, Amazon Prime, and other services. Recently, I've watched: West Wing, House of Cards, Mad Men, Schitt's Creek, Love Sick, Scandal, Shameless, Homeland, Game of Thrones, Big Bang Theory, Sheldon, Dharma and Greg, The Borgias, Third Rock from the Sun, Frankie and Grace, Episodes, Coupling, Newsroom, Allie McBeall, Falling Skys, Suits, Picket Fences, Gilmore Girls, Rome, Spartacus, How I Med Your Mother, Life in Pieces, Jane the Virgin, Modern Family, Stranger Things, Heart of Dixie...
In the old days, the only choice for watching series was broadcast television. Typically, 22 episodes constituted a season, and the episodes were broadcast one per week, with the time slots for the rest of the year being reruns. It was a stop-start experience, often with cliff-hanger stories to encourage viewers to come back next week or next year.
The advent of video recorders changed that experience. You could save episodes and watch them whenever your wanted or in a bunch. You could rent or buy. You were no longer constrained by the broadcst schedule. You could fast-forward past commercials. You could pause. You could rewind and rewatch. You were in control.
Then came cable with video on demand and DVRs, giving you similar control even more conveniently.
Now with streaming, you don't have to plan ahead. You can at any moment decide to binge on a series and watch one episode after another, from the first episode of the series through the last one, often without commercials. Watching in that mode, with only the interruptions you want, you can get deeply involved in stories and identify closely with the characters, and see the actors growing up and aging − like time-laps photography, watching grass grow or a flower bloom, where what normally takes days or months or years unfolds for you fast enough for you to enjoy the spectacle of change. Or you can choose to watch in stop-start mode, with breaks as long as you want, to suit your personal schedule and life style.
Viewing series by streaming has affected my perception of time. It has started me wondering if time itself continuous or discontinuous.
Film mimics action. A series of still photos viewed in rapid succession looks like natural movement. The faster the sequence, the smoother and more natural-seeming the motion. The camera takes a series of discrete pictures of real action; and, in playback, you see that action mimicked, and would not notice that it was an illusion, unless you viewed it in slow motion. And with animation, photos taken of still images, whether drawings or models, get replayed as action, making the impossible look natural.
You can get the reverse effect by turning on a strobe light in a dark room. Then you perceive what would otherwise look like smooth motion as a sequence of discontinuous still shots.
The human eye and brain evolved with this capability of converting a sequence of still images into the perception of motion. What was the survival benefit of this capability, which we evolved long before the invention of motion pictures? Why should we presume that the underlying reality which we perceive is smooth continuous motion? Rather, it seems likely that reality is discontinuous, like a series of still shots; and that we evolved the ability to perceive it as continuous because that provided practical benefits.
In other words, it is possible that time itself, the medium in which motion occurs, is discontinuous, just as what we perceive as continuous solid matter actually consists of molecules and atoms and force fields and is mostly empty space.
So how small is the basic unit of time and what is the time between time?
Normally we talk about time by analogy with space. In that mode, time is one dimensional like a line.
A spatial line extends infinitely. And time extends infinitely in the past and also in the future. By this spatial analogy, those are two directions on the same line. A point is the intersection of two lines. It is dimensionless. It has no extent. It can be thought of as infinitely small. By analogy, we could think of a moment as the intersection of two times lines.
How could there be more than one time line? Or why shouldn't there be?
There can be an infinite number of points on any line and on any line segment, no matter how small. But in the case of time, there is only one point − Now − which seems to move along the line in just one direction. Behind Now extends the past, and in front of it extends the future.
If the analogy of a line to time is useful, the line need not be straight and need not be limited to a single plane. While a spatial line is itself one-dimensional, it can curve and spiral, thereby existing in three spatial dimensions. In fact, since nothing can be straighter than a beam of light, and gravity either distorts space-time or bends a beam of light, in the real world all spatial lines exist in at least three spatial dimensions. Hence, by analogy, the time-line can be thought to exist in three temporal dimensions.
Instead of thinking of time as a straight line, visualize it as a line on a surface, which might be irregularly shaped. There might be multiple, even an infinite number of lines on this surface, which might be warped this way and that, and might have a shape that changes, regularly or randomly. The lines on this surface may never intersect, so then it would be necessary to define Now in a way that doesn't involve intersections. By analogy with a record on a turntable, we might define Now as the intersection of the groove with the needle. The surface moves, the needle stays in the groove/line. Where the needle has been is the past. Where it is headed is the future. And where it touches is Now.
We define time by motion: the hands of a clock, the rotation of the Earth, the perceived motion of the sun and stars. A digital clock belies that concept by displaying a sequence of numbers in stagger-step − one number, then another, then another − discrete changes rather than smooth continuous movement.
We might ask if reality consists of smooth continuous changes i.e. analog or of stop-start discrete changes i.e. digital. If discrete changes were small enough, we wouldn't perceive them any more than we see the discrete frames in a movie played at full speed. So the resolution of this question is beyond the limits of our perception.
We can make machines that perceive and record far more accurately than our all-too-human senses and brain. But the machines we rely on to extend our sensory and processing and memory capabilities are all digital − based on two discrete choices − yes or no; one or zero − and hence the resolution of this question is beyond the ability of machines as well − at least beyond the ability of digital machines.
When Isaac Newton published his Principia, explaining the laws of gravity, he presumed that those laws would apply not just for the Earth or our solar system or the observable stars − but everywhere.
A hundred years ago, in A Pluralistic Universe, William James came to a different conclusion. He speculated that reality isn't necessarily neat or logical or predictable. Beauty and simplicity are not synonymous with truth. Rather, the world we live in is messy and full of surprises, and the farther from Earth, the more likely the surprises. He believed that scientists should continually test their assumptions.
Recent books such as The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos both by Brian Greene, Warped Passages by Lisa Randall, and Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku explain the many flavors of string theory, which is a possible successor to quantum theory, which was the successor to relativity, which was the successor to Newtonian physics. These books describe a variety of ways to explain the data that scientists have gathered, such as multiple universes, multiple dimensions, dark matter, dark energy, and negative gravity. They build on the notion that we can understand realms of being that are far beyond our normal experience.
Our ability to make sense of the world around us evolved in this world. Our senses and our reasoning power are adequate for everyday life. But I believe we are not equipped to understand what happens on scales smaller than an electron, or larger than a galaxy, much less in multiple universes.
There is no reason to presume that the universe, viewed through our limited and flawed senses, is simple and logical enough for us to understand it. Rather, the universe may be complex and discontinuous. Natural laws that apply in our solar system and in our galaxy may not apply elsewhere or may not be stable; and if natural laws change, they may not change in predictable ways.
For instance, consider Hubble's Law. As Wikipedia states it, "the redshift in light coming from distant galaxies is proportional to their distance." Our calculations of the distances from Earth to stars and galaxies depend on that principle, presuming that the same natural laws that apply here also apply thousands, millions, and even billions of light years away. That assumption has mind-boggling consequences. If there are, in fact, discontinuities in reality and variations in natural laws beyond our galaxy, then what scientists have concluded about the size and nature and past and future of this universe, much less other universes, is in serious doubt.
We should consider the possibility that reality is messy, and that complex answers may sometimes prove more useful and suggestive than simple ones. Maybe there are two or more realities unfolding in parallel. Blink and you switch to a different life.
While the simplest answer may be the most probable, it may not be the most interesting. And the universe is very interesting.
Science progresses by testing educated guesses − hypotheses. But hypotheses depend on expectations based on previous knowledge and cultural bias.
We face the same limitation in everyday life. We filter what we see based on what we expect to see. We ignore anything seriously out of the range of our expectations. If we don't ask the right questions, we don't get the right answers. And as human beings, we have a limited range of hypotheses we are likely to consider plausible. Intuition and thinking-outside-the-box can expand that range, but not by much.
Today, computer simulation is used widely in conjunction with physical experiments to generate hypotheses and then test them. But such simulation typically stays within the range of human expectations.
To overcome that limitation, we need programs which generate hypotheses that are implausible and would not otherwise be considered; programs that come up with complex and improbable ideas and ways to test them. Such hypotheses could lead to experiments that record and help interpret data that would otherwise be ignored.
In the Middle Ages, the rule of thumb known as Occam's Razor was important in setting the stage for scientific advancement. "One should not increase, beyond what is necessary, the number of entities required to explain anything." That rule made practical sense because humans have limited time and limited brain power − focus your research on the most likely explanations. In today's vernacular KISS − "keep it simple stupid."
Now computers can deal with far more variables than humans can; and can calculate trees of causation far further; and hence can identify multiple explanations for the same event, all valid from different perspectives, and perhaps eacy leading to different long-term consequences. It is time to move beyond Occam's Razor, to expand the range of our research to deal with the complex, the unlikely, the redundant, and even the totally outlandish, admitting the possibility that truth might be messy rather than systematic and beautiful.
When I was reading The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene, which explains superstring theory for the masses, I was also reading Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson, an historical novel with Sir Isaac Newton as a character. On p. 670 of Quicksilver, one of the characters challenges a basic concept of calculus. He asks, "What happens then if we continue subdividing? ... Is it the same all the way down? Or is it the case that something happens eventually, that we reach a place where no further subdivision is possible, where fundamental properties of Creation are brought into play?"
The character is contrasting Newton's notion of infinite subdivision, with other concepts of the world in which there is a natural limit to such subdivision.
There appears to be a contradiction between superstring theory, which postulates an ultimate unit of length, and the assumption of calculus that space is infinitely divisible.
I sent an email to Brian Greene, wondering if fundamental concepts and procedures of calculus need to be refined to take this ultimate unit of length into account.
He was kind enough to reply, "In fact, that is just what we are working on today. The notion that the usual procedures of calculus are only relevant on length scales larger than some lower limit--we are trying to piece together the new procedures that take over."
We're told that dark matter and dark energy account for 95.1% of all there is in the universe. Ordinary matter amounts to just 4.9%. The exact numbers change with new scientific advances, but the overwhelming dominance of the dark over the ordinary remains constant.
You can't see dark matter. You can't feel it or smell it or interact with it in any way. In aggregate, dark matter and dark energy account for the gravitational force that is necessary for equations that are fundamental to our understanding of the physical world. Basically, dark matter and dark energy are a fudge factor. If we want to believe that we understand the physical world, if we want to believe that the physical laws which hold true in our solar system and our galaxy also hold true billions of light years way, if we want to believe we can look back 14 billion years and ahead billions of years and understand what was happening and what will happen, then we have to believe in dark matter and dark energy.
But concepts like spirit, soul, and self are non-scientific, beyond the pale, mere mystical speculation.
(excerpt from my fantasy The Lizard of Oz, in which an elementary school class on a field trip goes to the Underworld. You need to stand under the world to understand it. There are many levels of understanding.)
Everybody in the class put on sunglasses and stretched out on the beach, with the waves tickling their toes. They felt even better than they had when they fell into the river from the mushroom. Maybe they were relieved to be safe after all the danger they had passed through. Miss Osborne, in particular felt good that the quest was ending. Finally they were in Ome, and soon they'd be Home.
"Gosh," said Donny, "that bush over there looks like it's on fire."
Everybody went running to the bush.
Timmy got close enough to touch it.
"Watch out!" shouted Miss Shelby. "You'll get burnt."
"But it isn't burning, Miss Shelby," Timmy answered.
"Of course it's burning," said Miss Shelby. "You can see it's on fire."
But when she got closer, she too saw it wasn't burning.
"I wish Mr. Shermin were here," she said. "He was so good at explaining things. I learned so much from him."
"Why that's the fire that doesn't burn," said Miss Osborne, and she rushed forward with the stick that Plato had given her.
"What are you doing?" asked Joey.
"I want to see if this stick will catch fire, so we can bring the fire back home."
The stick glowed when she put it in the bush; but when she took it out, the glow faded.
"Do you think it's God?" asked Miss Shelby.
"Beware," a voice boomed, like it was coming from a loudspeaker.
Miss Shelby screamed, "The bush is talking!"
But Donny said, "Gosh, no, Miss Shelby. It's that astronaut over there.",
On top of the hill two men in space suits were walking toward them, waving as frantically in their cumbersome suits let them.
"Stand back from that bush," they said. "Return to the water. This area is contaminated. Radioactive material."
Everybody ran back to the water and got up to their waists in it. The spacemen plodded close to them.
"What's wrong?" asked Miss Osborne. "Did somebody drop a bomb or something?"
"No, miss, it's a natural phenomenon," answered one of the men. "Alpha and omega particles. It's long been a mystery, but we're very close to a break-through. Research has been going on here for years. Scientists named this land "Ohm" because they thought the phenomenon was electrical. An ohm is a measure of electrical resistance. But just last week we successfully separated and identified the two major forms of radiation: the alpha particle and a new particle we've christened the ohm-ega particle. That's an event of cosmic significance."
Miss Shelby explained to the class, "That means it's very important."
"Well, not really," the scientist corrected her. "Alpha and omega particles are cosmic rays and our discovery is very important in the study of cosmic rays. But nobody's sure how significant cosmic rays are in elementary particle physics."
Miss Shelby explained to the class, "Elementary means basic. The most important things, the building blocks you need for further study are elementary. Our school is an elementary school."
"It's different in physics," the scientist explained. "Elementary particles are very advanced. Not that we've advanced that far in our knowledge of them, but that only advanced students ever study them. Actually, very few people study them, and we know very little about them and how they relate to the world of ordinary experience."
"You mean they don't matter?"
"Brilliant, my dear, brilliant!" he exclaimed. "Particles matter. The very word we've been looking for. It's difficult to explain what happens at the subatomic level. Sometimes we talk of matter, and other times we talk of energy. Neither concept alone is sufficient, and yet the concepts of energy and matter seem mutually exclusive. When we try to put them together, we wind up with strange-sounding expressions like 'matter waves.' It all makes sense in terms of equations; but when we try to tell people what we're doing, language keeps leading us into trouble. The words we use often mean more than we mean them to mean.
"We have to be very careful with our words, for they can imply whole systems of thought, and no single system of thought or set of concepts is adequate for describing the world around us. We are faced with the difficult task of using contradictory sets of concepts, now using one and now another, according to the needs of the moment. It's a complicated process that can only to be learned by experience. There are no signposts to tell us when to use which."
"Gosh," said Donny, " Winthrop's like that. There aren't any street signs, and it's awful easy to get lost unless you've got a magic coin."
Miss Shelby started to reprimand Donny for interrupting, but the scientist just kept talking.
"Particles matter," he said. "That's beautiful. A simple pun might make it easier to talk about elementary particles. Yes, 'matter' is a verb as well as a noun, and on the subatomic level it makes more sense to use the word as a verb. Light isn't matter as a noun, but it is matter as a verb. Language, for all its pitfalls, is capable of unexpected beauties. Its very imprecision can be a source of clarity. Light matters. Electrons matter. Elementary particles matter. Perhaps even matter matters."
"I certainly hope so," said Miss Shelby. "I'd hate to think people spend their lives studying things that don't matter."
The scientist laughed, "That's another good one. The words keep meaning more than we mean them to mean. If we aren't careful, we might find ourselves talking about values and morals and other things that have nothing to do with physics."
After World War II, authors like Sartre and Camus reacted against abstract philosophy that neglected the immediacy, emotion, and empathy of everyday life. They blamed abstract dehumanized thinking for the horrors of the Third Reich. In opposition to that perspective, they harkened back to Dostoyevsky and other writers who believed that we are defined by our actions, regardless of the rationalizations we might use to justify what we do. Action in that sense means far more than muscle movement. They focused on decisive moments when one puts one's whole self behind what one does, where one is willing to risk everything to do what one feels must be done. Such acts are fraught with meaning due to the context in which they are performed. Such acts, particularly ones involving self-sacrifice/martyrdom, can trigger a tidal wave of consequences, For example, Moses standing up against Pharaoh, the martyrs of the early Christian church, Sir Thomas More standing up to Henry VIII, Martin Luther rebelling against the Catholic Church, and the signers of the Declaration of Independence.
Few of us will ever perform history-changing heroic feats. But we all do affect one another through principled, heartfelt acts that serve as memorable and inspiring examples to those around us. And what, at the time, may seem an insignificant act could through its influence on others have major consequences.
Through our genes, we are connected to those who came before and those who will come after us. Through ideas and chains of teaching and learning, we are connected to those who inspired us and whom we inspire. And we are also connected to one another by the consequences of our meaningful acts.
In an extended game of chess, there comes a moment when the tree of branching possibilities reverses − you visualize the ideal end position, and instead of from planning ahead, you begin to plan backwards, figuring out how to get to that ideal end position.
As those of us in the baby boomer generation retire and start new lives, we find ourselves in a unique position with regard to when we recognize that we are in end game.
Previous generations knew that they would die, but, for the most part, had little or no idea of how or when. Advances in medicine and genetics are now making possible early diagnosis of long-term fatal illnesses. New treatments can postpone the onset of such conditions and slow their progress. But it will probably take decades before cures and more effective preventive measures are developed. That means that many of our generation will learn that they have a long-term illness and will live for years with that knowledge and with everyday reminders of impending disability and death.
How will we meet the challenge of knowing that we are in end game? How will that knowledge change how we choose to live the rest of our lives and how we perceive the meaning of our lives?
I suspect that we can learn something of value from this experience and pass that on to future generations who may not be subject to such illnesses. Then the stories of our lives might provide insights into human relationships and into how we should live and who we can become.
The history of man is typically described in three stages: hunting/gathering, farming, and industrial.
Consider an alternative grouping: hunting/gathering, farming/industrial, and techno-global. In this way of viewing human history, each stage has a different value system learned through the struggle for survival; the industrial stage is an extension of the farming stage; and we now find ourselves at the beginning of a new stage.
Let's take a closer look at these three stages.
Stage one hunting/gathering, pre-history
physical strength and personal survival skills matter
man vs. beast/the elements
knowledge, skill, and experience are necessary for survival in a world over which you have no control
Stage two farming/industrialization, from pre-history to the end of the 20th century
domesticating and controlling animals/beasts of burden
substituting machines for animals, with the advance of technology
substituting machines for workers, with the advance of technology
central authority dominates in government and business
man as owner and controller of land, beasts, and other men
man performing machine-like tasks until machines can do them
weeding, killing off runts, and eliminating the weak and handicapped
values learned from farming support industrialization and nationalization
Stage three techno-global, now
global communication and global economy
values of knowledge, skill, and experience
technology makes possible new ways of working together and living together
technology enables group action and coordination without central control
the weak and handicapped deserve equal rights
our responsibilities extend beyond our family and our local district
we are all citizens of the entire planet
technology extends human knowledge and capabilities.
From this perspective, farming and industrialization were different aspects of the same control-based value system, which lasted more than 10,000 years. And we are now at the beginning of a new stage, characterized by cooperation, compassion, and interdependence.
We should not judge the merit of our efforts based on their immediate consequences. Over time, our perspective will change. What we are proud of today, one day we may regret. And what we regret today, one day we may be proud of.
We should do what we feel is right and do it to the best of our ability. If each person behaves that way − given the diverse mix of what people believe is right and of what they are capable of − human endeavor will advance over the long haul, regardless of temporary ups and downs.
In many cases, if we knew beforehand the long-term effects of what we were about to do, we wouldn't do it. But looking even further ahead, the effects could be the reverse, and what we now would dread might then be deemed good and necessary, because the context and hence the meaning will have changed. As Heraclitus observed, you can never cross the same river twice. If you could relive any moment of your life, it wouldn't be the same moment, because your knowledge, your perspective, and your motivation would be different.
When my Dad was 86, he had trouble sleeping. In his dreams, he revisited the decision points in his life and wondered why the consequences of his decisions turned out one way rather than another. He wondered whether he had made the right choices, and what could have happened if he had acted otherwise. He was heavy with regret.
I told him that I believe that we have natural proclivities, and that what seem like decisions often aren't decisions at all. In our guts, we know what we have to do because we are who we are. The reasons we give for our actions are often rationalizations we cobble together afterwards. Yes, random events affect our lives. But, in many cases, such events only knock us off track temporarily, and then we continue toward the same goal by a different path.
There's a shape to the landscape in which we live our lives, with mountains and valleys. As we approach a decision-point, if we go in one direction everything gets more difficult and painful − we trip over ourselves; we can't find the words; we forget things that we have to remember; we are at odds with ourselves. And in another direction the path feels right. If we go the first way despite the obstacles, soon there's another choice and another. And sooner or later we find our way back to what is natural for us.
Hence, we shouldn't judge what we do based on what we believe will be the long-term consequences. Rather, we should do what we feel is best for now and do it to the best of our ability.
Our lives aren't as subject to random occurrences as at first appears, nor are we as much in control of our lives as at first appears. I believe there is more to our lives than we are ever likely to realize, and that that should inspire wonder, curiosity, and reverence.
One night, I saw three hoodlums with machetes walk through the outside wall of my second-floor bedroom. I screamed. I had seen this vision while awake.
It took a while for my breathing and heart rate to slow down. In the process, it occurred to me that I had come close to being scared to death. Then I realized that I had been scared to life.
A dream like that ---- not an ordinary dream composed of images from everyday life, and not a recurring dream heavy with symbolism, but one that comes out of nowhere and that you see while semi-awake − must serve a purpose.
That vision was a wakeup call for me, like a near-death experience. It was a reminder of my mortality, a warning that if there was anything I really wanted to do, I'd better do it. If the obvious physical signs of health issues or aging aren't enough to get me going, then my unconscious will take over and scare me into life.
That's what led me to start this series of essays, trying to make sense of questions I've left unexamined for too long.
The experience of that dream was an affirmation of a basic belief of mine − that as individuals and as a species, self-regulating mechanisms come into play, pushing us toward balance and reason and compassion. And in that context, our worst experiences and our worst fears help nudge us in the right direction, as if some force were trying to navigate a huge ship down a river, with the crudest of controls − a push this way, then a push that way. Toward what goal?
(excerpts from my novel Beyond the Fourth Door)
Soon after the death of her daughter Sue, Sarah surprised the Reverend Schumacher-- it was she who had a passage she wanted to understand. "What does the word 'mansions' mean in the King James version of John 14:2, 'There are many mansions in my Father's house'? How can there be mansions in a house? A house is small. A mansion is big. It makes no sense. Why would one translator say 'rooms' and another 'mansions'? What did Christ really say?"
The Reverend Schumacher was delighted that Sarah had asked him. "Christ is speaking to his disciples at the Last Supper. He is telling them about life after death. He is reassuring them that there will be room enough for them in heaven, his Father's house. Perhaps it's meant as an echo of the Christmas story − in heaven there will be room in the inn. But it suggests more than just space in which to live.
"The King James translation just anglicized the Latin, even though 'mansion' has a different meaning in English. The Latin is mansio, mansionis, which means a stay or a sojourn, and, by extension, a halting place, a stage of a journey. Perhaps the passage means that life after death is a stage of a journey; that there are many such stages; that the journey through the house of God is a long one, requiring many rest stops. Perhaps our life here on Earth is just one such stage."
"And what are the words in the original Greek?" she inquired, expecting that the words of Christ would have magical power.
The Reverend quickly consulted the pocket-sized Greek New Testament he always carried with him. "En te oixia tou patros mou monai pollai eisin."
"And what part of that means many rooms or mansions?"
"You mean like 'monopoly'?" she asked.
"That word has different roots, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. Far be it from me to discount the suggestiveness of our living language."
"And the key word is monai?"
"Yes, in the singular, mone. The letters are 'mu omicron nu eta.' It's pronounced like the impressionist painter Monet, or like the French word for loose change − monnaie. It's an unusual word. Its meaning is very similar to the Latin mansio. But, to the best of my knowledge, there are no words in English that derive from it. Money, monopoly, and monastery all come from different roots. You might say it's a word that died without offspring."
"I often think of my father's house," said Sarah. "It was a wood-frame house connected to a barn with a passageway, so you wouldn't have to go out in the snow to get to your horse and buggy. It's still standing − painted blue now instead of white, and they've turned part of the barn into a garage. We lived in the few steam-heated rooms in the center of the house. But in the summer, I spent lots of time in the many rooms of the attic, the barn, and the basement and in the 'secret passageway.' That was what we called the crawlspace under the peak of the roof that led from the barn to the house. I hope that God's house has rooms like that − rooms to go off and be alone in, rooms where you can cuddle up with a good book, big empty rooms you can fill with your imagination.
"These last few nights I've dreamt that there's this secret room where I stored my most precious things − things that have been lost for years: a rusty iron ring a boy gave me in grammar school, a notebook of poems I wrote, and photos of Sam my brother who ran away from home. And last night, it wasn't just the photos that were there, but Sam himself, and Sue, too. Sam and Sue had been playing a game of hide and seek. I just had to find the right room."
(twenty years later)
Sarah exited very quietly a month and a half after her fiftieth anniversary, after most of the family had returned to jobs and school. Irene was sitting in the bedroom with her, reading a paperback collection of movie scripts. It was her turn to watch in case Sarah needed anything. Irene didn't notice the moment of passing. She thought Sarah was still asleep. An hour or two later, Hank came in to give her pain-killing pills and found her stiffening form.
The Reverend Schumacher conducted the funeral service. "I knew Sarah for thirty years," he explained. "Over that time I've gotten a reputation for the eccentric interpretations I give to biblical passages in my sermons. I must confess that Sarah was my inspiration. She had a wonderful and naive faith in the power of language − of all languages. At Christmas she'd wish us all 'Mary Christmas, and Joseph New Year.' She was intrigued by the echoes she'd hear − the meanings and associations that appeared as if by accident of translation. She felt they were part and parcel of the mystery of God, and we would puzzle and rejoice over them together.
"When her daughter Sue died, we puzzled over the passage: 'There are many mansions in my father's house.' I liked to think of the word 'mansion' in the Latin sense of stages of a journey − the notion that this life is just one stage in a much longer journey. Sarah preferred the English sense of 'mansion' as a huge house with many rooms, and dying as moving from one room to another or one mansion to another. I imagine her now, a little girl, standing in a vast and strange new mansion − lost and in awe; not frightened, just very curious, as she has always been.
"Today, in pondering what to say as a farewell, a hackneyed phrase came to mind: 'And now Sarah is with God.' I had a moment of recognition − an epiphany, like an electric shock. It was a typically 'Sarah phrase.' Just a few months ago, she had puzzled over the echoes of "Mary was with child," and "the Word was with God". And now I cannot help but think, 'Sarah was with child, and now she is with God.' And may the mystery of those words be revealed to her in everlasting joy."
(excerpt from my novel The Name of Hero)
"Why do you pray?" Sasha asked his mother. She was kneeling in front of an icon of Christ as she always did before going up to bed. He was on the brink of manhood.
She glared up at him, then squeezed her eyes shut, trying to concentrate again on her prayer.
He had just passed his last exam in geography, his worst subject. Proud of himself, he would soon be out on his own, away from his despotic mother. He had an urge to provoke her, to arouse her martyred wrath. But despite himself, he would miss her and the simple pattern of her rewards and punishments, the certainty of her disapproval when he broke her rules.
"Why do you pray?" he persisted.
She opened her eyes, pursed her lips, and heaved a sigh of disappointment. "Have I raised a heathen? Don't you believe in God?"
"No," he surprised himself with his answer. He observed all the forms of religion, including prayer. But since the typhoid death of his sister Lilia, he had avoided thinking about God.
Lilia and he had squabbled often. He teased her; she retaliated. Through their running battles they grew close, testing themselves against one another, anticipating one another's responses. Then she was gone. It was as if he had been standing in front of a mirror, showing off his abilities. Then, suddenly, the mirror was gone and he was standing before an endless dark chasm.
For days he had prayed to God to bring her back or to wake him from this nightmare.
Then he had asked for a sign that there was a God. But silence was the only answer. He had cursed God and all of creation. He had cursed Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. He had cursed the Church and the priests and all believers. And he had dared God to strike him dead for such blasphemy, as he knelt, trembling, beside his bed, cursing God innocently, in the humble posture of prayer; saying he didn't believe in God, but fully expecting at any moment to be struck by a bolt of lightning.
There was no lightning. But he continued his ritual of evening prayers, never asking himself, as he asked his mother now, "Why do you pray? Do you expect that God is going to give you something? that He's going to do something for you?"
"No," she answered. He was shocked that she took his question seriously. He had expected her to attack him verbally, as she had so often with far less provocation. But instead, she sank into self-reflection, as if his question had awakened old memories. She looked old and defenseless. He had never thought of her as old before. He had never seen her with her guard down like this. He was used to her using her diminutive size and presumed frailty as a weapon. She manipulated people by making them pity her. She was well practiced at assuming the look of a martyr, and she did so with finesse and authority. But now the muscles of her face hung more loosely than he had ever seen before. She was an active, dynamic woman in her early fifties. But for the moment, the energy was gone from her face. She just looked old.
"Then why do you pray?" he persisted.
"I suppose ... because I'm weak... because I'll die."
Sasha continued, "But I remember when we were in Switzerland, at Father's grave." His mother was clearly shaken. He knew his words were hurting her, but still he kept up this line of questioning. "You brought Meta and me back to visit the grave, years after he had died. You asked a Catholic priest to say a prayer at his grave, because Father had been Catholic. The priest refused. He said Father wasn't Catholic enough because he had married an Orthodox woman and let the children be raised Orthodox. You cried and told him that his prayers weren't worth anything, that prayers hadn't kept Father alive, that no prayers were worth anything. And yet every night you still pray. Can you tell me why?"
"I don't know," she admitted, bewildered as he had never seen her before. "Whatever happens to me, I always want to pray...to talk to God... I can't imagine living without praying. I suppose even animals pray."
They were both silent for a while. Then she continued. "I remember a conversation I had with an old priest when Anatole, the man I was betrothed to, died, just a week before we were to be married, and I believe he said almost the same words to me When I returned years later, when your father died. I was numb, empty.
"The priest asked me what was wrong.
"I answered, 'Death.'
"'Is that all?' he asked.
"'That there is death. The fact of death."
"'Yes, it is just a fact, just a fact. Facts you find in the outside world. They can be proved and disproved. They can change. Unlike faith. Faith you find inside yourself, beyond change, beyond proof, beyond reason. Reason sees only change and difference. It can only deal with distinctions − separating and combining to arrive at 'understanding.'
"'There is no end to the number of facts. But there is only one faith.
"'The truth of facts we call 'pravda.'
"'The truth of faith we call 'istina.'
"'To seek oneness with the unchanging truth that is within you is to pray.'
Sasha's mother continued, "So I prayed then. I shut my eyes and shut out the world and fell into deep prayer, for hours, remembering the context of all the times I had prayed before, the smell of incense, the feel of a priest's hands on my head as a child, the tones, not the words, of chanting. When I came out of it, Anatole was still dead, your father was still dead, but I was at peace with myself and had the strength to do all the day-to-day things that had to be done. I believe that praying puts me in touch with an inner reservoir of strength. Praying is like dipping a bucket into a deep well within ourselves, hoping to bring up some of the water of life."
The Name of God has special significance in the first commandment − "Do not take the Name of the Lord Thy God in Vain" and in the Lord's Prayer − "Hallowed be Thy Name."
Why this focus on the "name of God" as opposed to God Himself or Herself?
As Kant pointed out, there is the thing itself, the unknowable essence that we presume exists outside of our mind; and there is the concept of the thing which is the representation of the thing in our minds.
The human mind evolved to make practical sense of the world around us, to allow us to cope in a world that is fundamentally unknowable.
We use names to organize and associate thoughts, and we relate those thoughts to our personal experience in dealing with the world.
In the beginning was the Word.
In traditions based on magic, everyone has a true name which expresses that person's nature and knowing someone's true name gives power over that person.
Your name, whether traditionally or randomly chosen by your parents, is an empty vesssel that takes on meaning over the course of your life. That name comes to stand for the unique person that you become. It is also a connection with others who came before who were given that same name.
The word name also refers to the categories which we apply to all of creation, like dog and cat, in recognition of characteristics that a set of things or creatures have in common. In Genesis Adam and Eve named all creatures.
And the word name is also used as a token standing for an unknowable essence − God − enabling us to talk about and contemplate what essentially cannot be known.
The mind uses names to mirror the world. When we give names to what we encounter in the world, we set up mental equivalents that we can manipulate and compare and remember. In striving to understand these concepts we assign meaning to them and associate them with one another and meaning grows from what we think about them as well as from our experience in the world. With this cumulative remembered mental activity we enrich our lives and come to better cope with the experiences we encounter in the worldd.
By the ways we associate these concepts with one another, we create maps in our minds that represent how we imagine the real world − not just a one-to-one association of ideas to things, but ideas of ideas of ideas − a rich tapestry of layer upon layer of associations, the names of things being far richer than the things themselves, because we can associate them in our minds and we can communicate these complex ideas to others.
To name is to begin the effort of trying to understand.
By this line of reasoning, the Name of God is the first step in trying to understand what God might be.
I dreamed that two people were hopelessly at odds with one another. Each used language differently. They understood the same words in different senses. But, eventually, through the medium of language, using words to define other words, they found common ground. Language was the medium for their reconciliation, helping bring about understanding.
When I awoke, I realized that what I had previously presumed was the weakness of language is its strength.
The flexible, imprecise, self-referential nature of language makes the process of understanding possible. There is no absolute meaning of any word. Meaning comes from the conflict of two people, who use words in different ways, striving to communicate with one another. The imprecision of their words fosters the process of arriving at mutual understanding. Understanding results not despite, but because of the anarchic creation of new words and new definitions of old words.
At the beginning of an attempt at serious communication, the fuzziness of the words that both parties use is obvious. That problem initiates the dialogue through which, by a recursive process, using language to define language, understanding is reached. In other words, language's fuzziness leads to clarification and agreement.
Two people from different regions or backgrounds or disciplines often use the same words in different ways; hence when they try to communicate they can't take the meanings of words for granted. Therefore, they need to clarify what they think and work hard to sort out what the other means. That effort can lead to greater self-understanding as well as mutual understanding.
In other words, language is not a static tool that people use to communicate. Its ambiguities and flaws force dialogue, and only through the give and take of dialogue is it possible to communicate concepts of consequence.
I sometimes have trouble remembering names that I am familiar with friends I haven't seen for years, authors, political figures, and actors/actresses.
This isn't the kind of forgetting that Freud describes in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. That kind of forgetting derives from an association between something we want to forget and the name we now want to remember. The repressed memory accidentally obscures connected memories. The association could be sound, shape, or some other characteristic. With that kind of forgetting, we often can identify the repressed memory by free association and then remember what we want to remember. Problem solved.
In this case, even if and when I do remember the name, I don't know why I forgot it; and I might forget it again tomorrow. To deal with this kind of issue, I have started what I call memory cluster lists in hopes that such lists will help me preserve my functional, day-to-day memories.
Often, when I forget a name, I know the context. I might know the name of the movie that the actor appeared in and see his face in my mind's eye, but not recall the actor's name. For famous people, I can use the Internet to track down the names. So while that kind of forgetting is a nuisance, it has no consequences.
For personal acquaintances, if I lose a name, I have no such backup, and I could lose it permanently.
I now record in a notebook names that I do remember, organized by what these people have in common or the era of my life when I encountered them.
The process of writing names down often leads me to remember other names that I hadn't recalled in many years. The more names in a given cluster, the sharper the memories and the more additional names occur to me.
(excerpt from my novel Beyond the Fourth Door)
I believe that dreams are important for memory. They're part of the mechanism for translating short-term memory into long-term memory. I understand that short-term memory is electrical, and that long-term is chemical. Often the elderly can still remember events from their childhood but can't remember where they just put a cup. It seems like the short-term memory gets filled up, unable to take any more. Maybe it's like a blackboard, covered with chalk to the point that there's no way to distinguish anything new that's written on it from what was there before. It needs to be erased to be useful again. The elderly lose the ability to clean the slate and transfer recent information to long-term memory.
That's where my theory strays from conventional knowledge. I believe that the mechanism for doing that translation is triggered by sexual stimulation.
Freud made a big deal about the connection between dreams and sexual fantasy. He presumed that sex is the be-all and end-all, at the center of all our creative activity. I would put the emphasis on memory instead. I would say that we dream not to fulfill unconscious sexual desires, but rather to renew our memory so we can continue to function as productive human beings. I would say that there's a connection between erotic dreams and the mechanism of memory translation. I would say that we dream about sex not because sex is important, but because memory is important. Sexual arousal triggers a set of events that puts our short-term memories into long-term form and then erases the short-term slate so it's ready to record new experience.
Other mammals have brief periods when they are in heat and can conceive. Adult humans are perpectually subject to sexual stimulation and sexual dreams, even after they can no longer procreate. That's because sexual stimulation is part of the mechanism for renewing memory. And memory, rather than sex, may be the primary human drive.
Such an hypothesis could lead to research which might help alleviate or cure memory problems of the elderly.
Thought exists before words.
When we associate a thought with words, the thought becomes clearer through the association of those words with other words and other thoughts. And the thought becomes richer when we share those words with other people, who then associate them with other words and other thoughts and engage in dialogue with us and with one another.
What once was a shapeless glimmer of a thought sometimes spreads from person to person and from generation to generation, gaining momentum and following its own trajectory, far beyond its origins.
When I was young, I believed that until it was expressed in words, a thought was not yet a thought. As in the opening of the Gospel of John, "In the beginning was the Word."
But as I get older, I sometimes grope for words to express a thought after that thought has taken shape in my mind. My first choice of words might be "on the tip of my tongue," but just out of reach; and I scramble to find an alternate way to express what I mean.
So, with advancing age, it's not just retrieving memories that becomes difficult, but finding words as well. The thoughts are there, but the words are not.
Perhaps that passage from John would be better translated, "Before the beginning was the Thought, and the Thought was with God, and the Thought was God "
In the opening sentence of the "Gospel of John," the standard English translation reads "In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God."
In that oft-quoted passage, Word is from the Greek Logos, which can also be interpreted as logic or thought or reason. And with is from the Greek pros.
In classical Greek, pros plus the accusative means against.
Hence, I am intrigued by the alternative translation, "In the beginning was Reason and Reason was against God and Reason was God." In other words, Reason by its very nature is opposed to God but, in fact, is itself God Himself.
We evolved to cope with this world − not to understand it, but rather to deal practically with what we encounter. There is no reason to presume that we have the capability to understand this world, much less distant worlds. At our best, what we perceive and what our minds make of what we perceive does not perfectly match the world around us. And over time, our apparatus for thinking becomes less able to deal with new information and new circumstances, not just because we are older, but also because what we learn shapes how we think and what we perceive in the future. Learning and experience change us.
The typical challenge to Descartes' assertion "I think therefore I am" is that the statement presumes the existence of a subject who can think. It also presumes that the subject, pronoun I − whoever or whatever does the thinking − remains static. That is not the case.
Since our thinking apparatus changes over time, if I define who I am by how and what I think, then I am a different person today than I was 50 years ago because my brain thinks differently.
As William James observed in Talks for Teachers About Psychology, if and when we focus on one kind of activity or one realm of knowledge, it becomes increasingly harder for us to learn new subjects that are unrelated to that. We might postpone learning calculus or a musical instrument or a foreign language, only to discover later that we no longer can make sense of it or enjoy it or master it.
I wonder if I would have made other life choices if I had understood that principle when I was in my 20s and 30s. As it is, I'll never master Japanese or the clarinet or make sense of advanced math and science.
A pessimist would say that our ability to think deteriorates as we age, as does our ability to see and to hear. But my instinct tells me that what matters overall isn't the individual mind, but rather the results of our collective thinking and what we do based on that thinking: that the aging mind has characteristics that are important in interaction with other ways of thinking. I believe the world needs older thinkers, whose minds have been shaped by a variety of learning and experience, just as it needs young thinkers whose minds are more malleable.
Metaphor is a transference of meaning from one context to another.
You enrich the meaning of concept A, in context A, by comparing it to concept B, in context B. Thanks to the comparison, concept A is seen in context B and takes on additional meaning. This is one way that a living language grows and changes.
Some contexts include others. The overall context of a language is its complete literary canon. And you could define a language as a massive set of inter-referential metaphors.
A new word or concept is first defined by its context alone. "The angry XYX gripped its prey with its six-inch claws". In English, the word order establishes the part of speech and the role of the word. Associated descriptive words and nouns and verbs add to that context. The more usage examples, the clearer the meaning.
The meaning of the present is defined by its context − both its past, how it became, and its future, what it is becoming.
When reading a printed book that we hold in our hands and that we advance through by turning pages, we perceive text in context − both backwards and forwards. And when reading an electronic book, we perceive text as a series of words presented in order, with the position on the page and the number of pages dependent on screen size and reader choice.
Since meaning derives from context, the printed book has different and perhaps richer meaning than its electronic equivalent.
One Thanksgiving, I had the opportunity to share dinner with a family I had not met before.
While everyone else was intimately connected, I was an observer, a total outsider, cordially welcomed, but not a member of this four-generation family.
I sensed the lines of connection and togetherness which joined them. They didn't need to say or do anything to feel connected to one another. Each enjoyed the vibes of being together and sensing the joy of the others, sharing that space and time. Words were superfluous. The content of what they said didn't matter, only the gestures of communication. Being together meant feeling complete. And if any of them hadn't been there, they would have all felt the absence. They would have missed the satisfying sense of completeness.
I could also sense the family making new connections and strengthening old ones as they passed a three-month old baby to one another, calming his cries, making him smile, connecting with him.
Someone said, "I wonder what he's thinking." Another said, "I wonder if he can think yet." And it occurred to me that thinking happens without language. Language is an overlay, a decoration, an entertainment, a rationalization.
Real thinking and deciding take place separately from language. An infant senses the vibes of connection without speaking or understanding a word.
After dinner, the family played a game of chance that I had never seen before. I was a spectator, not a player; and by watching, I deciphered the rules. Everyone started with six quarters, and there were six dice. Each person rolled the dice in turn. If there was a 1, 2, or 3, nothing happened. For each 4, the roller put one quarter in the pot. For each 5, the roller gave a quarter to the person to the left. For each 6, the roller gave a quarter to the person to the right. They rolled as many dice as they had quarters remaining. There was no strategy. There were no tactics. The players made no decisions. It was a game of pure chance that linked all the participants in random patterns. It was a competition that was non-competitive.
In this game, they gave to one another and took from one another and were connected to one another. They saw and shared one another's joy and frustration. They were all happy together. And it didn't matter who won.
Your body is a rental. The molecules that make up your body have been recycled over and over again for about 14 billion years and will continue to be recycled long after you cease to be.
Somewhere in the world, there are doppelgangers of you − people you'll never meet who are not related to you, but who look enough like you to be your twin.
The words you use have been used over and over by other people since the beginnings of language. Other people have expressed or will express ideas close to ideas of yours.
Is there anything tangible and readily identifiable that is unique about you? Not fingerprints or DNA, which require analysis by skilled technicians, with special equipment.
Imagine a wall full of post-its, an infinite wall. One of the post-its has written on it the most interesting and important idea you have ever expressed. The other post-its covering that infinite wall have those same words, but were written by or will be written by other people.
There are differences in handwriting on these post-its that can be interpreted as indicators of personality. But nearly all of the current and future post-its don't have handwriting at all − they are computer printouts.
Your handwriting used to be the standard indicator of your identity. A holograph of a famous person, a document written entirely in the handwriting of the author, was a collector's treasure. A handwritten letter can be a work of art − not just the words, but the presentation, the handwritten context that reveals the character of the writer and his or her state of mind at the time of writing. Also the neatness, the obvious care or the hurried scrawl express or don't express respect for the intended recipient. Or a hurried note could reflect the familiarity of the correspondents − they know one another's handwriting well enough that there is no need to be careful, like married couples finishing one another's sentences. They only need clues, not clarity. They can fill in the gaps without even thinking about it.
Medieval copyists were artists. They didn't just duplicate the words they saw in old manuscripts. Rather they embellished and beautified with color and flourishes.
Later, business copyists, handling the correspondence of the firms they worked for were expected to not simply copy words from one document to another or to faithfully transcribe words that were dictated to them. The finished documents they produced reflected on the firm. Presentation, not just accurate content, was essential. And doing that well took skill and experience.
Think of Melville's Bartleby, Dickens' Bob Cratchit, and the clerk-copyists in Gogol's stories. All men.
With the invention of the typewriter, copying documents became a mechanical process, rather than a craft or art form. Low-paid typists, overwhelmingly women, took the place of educated and skilled clerks.
Today, with photocopying, scanning, spell-checked word processing, and email instead of paper mail, the skill level required to write and copy documents has dropped much farther. Bosses may write their own messages. And often, it is difficult to determine from the presentation − the look and feel of a document − whether it was done by the boss or by an assistant. The document has become anonymous. It is no longer an indicator of identity.
Today, 41 states do not require schools to teach cursive reading or writing. So in a generation or two, not only will the vast majority of people not write by hand, they also will not be able to read handwriting. Handwriting will be like Latin, only understood by academics. And nearly all those post-it notes on that infinite wall will look just the same as every other.
At a drug store this morning, the clerk at the counter accidentally spilled perfume on her hands. There was nothing she could do to get rid of the smell. She'd just have to wait for it to wear off.
That's when it occurred to me that there should be a perfume-removal product. We have removal products for just about everything else a woman puts on herself − nail-polish removers, makeup removers. Why not perfume?
Such a product could be a winner in and of itself, but it also could be a boon to the perfume industry. If you could quickly, easily, and effectively remove a fragrance, you could get into the habit of changing fragrances, as often as you change your clothes or your makeup. There could be morning, afternoon, evening, and bedtime fragrances. There could be fragrances for business, for home, for shopping, for social occasions. With the right advertising, consumers could become convinced that such changes are not just an option, but a social necessity. You'd feel naked without the right fragrance, or maybe you'd feel just as gauche using the wrong perfume as you would wearing the wrong kind of clothes or the wrong kind of makeup for particular occasion.
Then it occurred to me that perfume − not products that clean the body and remove distasteful odors, but rather products meant to generate an artificial presumably attractive odor − have a negative side-effect. Normally, the touch, the sight, the taste, and the smell of your partner are all connected with your partner's identity. In the process of falling in love, like Pavlov's dog, you learn to associate all those sensory cues with your beloved.
By nature, a person's scent is unique to that person; and when you become intimately close to someone, your ability to recognize small differences is heightened. But commercial perfumes are mass produced. When a woman wears a perfume when she is with her partner, she unwittingly trains that person to associate that scent, rather than her own unique scent, with romantic feelings. You might say she is training her partner for infidelity.
Similarly, when a woman dyes her hair, she takes a characteristic that can uniquely identify her and help her bond with her partner and trades it in for something any other woman could easily imitate.
On my first trip to Disney World back in 1978, Tomorrowland struck me as dated -- embodying an obsolete image of the future, the future we imagined in the1950s. This was the future that Disney and General Electric once promised us. "Progress is our most important product." "Live better electrically." Back in the 1950s, on television, we heard about the future products of inevitable progress. Technology was marching steadily forward. Machines were making better machines to make better machines. Man was the passive spectator and beneficiary of inevitable progress.
In 1978, I expected to see an updated image of tomorrow in Tomorrowland. Surely, the people who built Disney World intended this land to represent the tomorrow of the present, not the tomorrow of the past. But this Tomorrowland was a duplicate of the first 1950s' Tomorrowland. It was yesterday's tomorrow.
Then I was struck by nostalgia for the 1950s, for a time when:
we could believe in ever-expanding resources and energy and wealth and progress;
we took for granted that sooner or later (perhaps in our lifetime) there would be regular passenger flights to Mars and beyond;
costs inevitably went down with increasingly plentiful energy and increasingly powerful mass-production technology; and
it seemed that every time-saving convenience product could eventually be made cheaply, as one innovation led to another.
And I was struck by discomfort with the present as well, with a time when:
costs inevitably soared;
technological innovations gathered dust on the inventor's shelf because they would never be economically justifiable;
exploration of outer space was too costly;
energy costs soared, and high-speed cars and big cars used too much energy;
we had to cut back and slow down; and
we had to abandon many time-saving conveniences that we had grown used to as we strove to reduce our energy and resource consumption.
A generation that was promised inevitable progress found itself forced to retreat before the energy and environmental consequences. We recognized how foolish that quest for "progress" was, how it led to the rapid and wasteful destruction of vast resources. But we couldn't help but feel nostalgia for those halcyon days when there were no clouds on the horizon and it was all-systems-go. That's the flavor of nostalgia I felt when I left Tomorrowland in Disney World.
Now, thinking back to that visit over forty years ago, I remember the huge artificial tree in Adventureland, representing the home of the Swiss Family Robinson, and that memory sends my speculation about the future in a different direction.
That display showed examples of nineteenth-century ingenuity working with, taming, and living in harmony with nature. Ironically, it was a celebration of natural living set on a huge artificial tree.
Now, that treehouse calls to mind the ingenious techniques that people in the past used before they had access to electrical machinery and internal combustion engines. I'm amazed at what they could accomplish -- not inevitable broad, sweeping progress, but hard-won individual achievement.
We can no longer afford the luxury of passive consumption. More and more, each of us must struggle to cope with decreasing energy supplies and increasing costs. We need to make the most of the objects around us. We need to turn out unneeded lights, insulate the attic, patch and fix clothes and gadgets that a few years back we would have replaced because replacement cost less than repair.
In the past, even inside the house, we faced a constantly changing environment. Now, by fixing and refurbishing, we'll relate as previous generations related to the objects around them.
I see an end to future shock coming with the end of passive progress. To thrive now and in the future, we need to become handy, persistent, patient, and ingenious. We need to develop traits and abilities and learn everyday skills that our ancestors took for granted.
A new picture of the future emerges -- a positive and active future I can look forward to, identify with, and participate in.
Directly sensing the presence of other minds and even their mood, the blind know with certainty that other minds exist. They don't have to, rationally, and with great effort, arrive at that conclusion.
A sightless person perceives the world differently and relates to it differently than a sighted person. The absence of sight does not mean the brain has less data to deal with, but rather it has a different mix of data not dominated by the data of sight. And in adapting to this different environment, the brain processes the received data differently, coming to different kinds of conclusions based on different categories than those that Kant defined.
Yes, in interacting with sighted people and the physical-social environment that sighted people establish and dominate, the blind develop correspondences between what they perceive and what sighted people describe. The categories by which the blind organize and deal with the world approximate the categories of the sighted.
But the categories themselves are not essential features of human existence. Rather they are learned. And the philosophic problems that arise from such categories − such as whether there exist beings other than myself who feel and think as I do artificial and contingent on my having eyesight and having developed the associated mental processes for dealing with that type of data.
A newborn baby does not have sight-related categories. Over time, through the practice of dealing with sight-dominated perceptual data in a social-cultural world organized and explained, talked about, and written about by others in terms of sight-oriented categories, the young child learns to understand the world and his/her relationship in terms of such categories as size and time and similarity. Hence we believe that learning progresses in stages, as children develop the ability to think that way, cf. Piaget. Hence, too, there develop cultural differences and also sex-role differences in how we perceive and process the data of life how we understand, how we pose questions, and how we answer questions; what we understand as proof; what we believe without question; how we relate to life and death.
But our fundamental concepts of space and time, our concept of self, and the range of our possible relationships with others are not structures of our minds that we were born with, but rather are contingent, learned, and alterable.
In different circumstances, without the same faculties of perception or confronted with very different perceptual data in a world very different from today's human-dominated Earth, the human mind could develop in very different ways, with very different kinds of understanding, with different certainties, different questions, and different answers.
I perceive therefore I think. How I think depends on how I perceive as well as on what I perceive. How I think also depends on how I have learned to organize and process what I perceive.
In the absence of a primary sense such as sight or hearing, other senses become fine-tuned and hypersensitive and varieties of intuition come to play more prominent roles, leading to capabilities outside the range of the basic five senses, and leading to structures of processing and understanding outside the range of the sighted.
The world is much richer than we normally presume, and our capabilities for perceiving and understanding extend over a wider range than philosophers have presumed.
Today, we should turn to the blind for such insights, and, perhaps, in the future, we might also benefit from the insights of computer-based entities which operate with very different modes of perception.
In an article in the New Yorker, July 2, 2001, Louis Menand wrote about Laura Bridgman, a predecessor pf Helen Keller. Fifty years before Helen, Laura 1829-1889 was the first blind-deaf person to get an education in English.
Her mind had very limited content to work with − memories of the few things she could touch with her fingers and what she had been able to read. "Yet she found life as intensely absorbing as anyone else does." From her example, William James concluded "that the relations among things are far more interesting and important than the things themselves." James wrote "All sorts of terms can transport the mind with equal delight, provided they be woven into equally massive and far-reaching schemes and systems of relationship. The schemes and the systems are what the mind finds interesting."
James believed that there are many "realities" in the universe, and "that we sense relations as much as we sense things." And, according to Menand, Bridgman insisted that she had a "sense of think." To her, thinking was "as immediate and spontaneous as sight or touch... It's the way we weave the sensuous tapestry of the world. From a cosmic point of view, all minds are pathetically underpopulated. We somehow intuit a world from a tiny sample of what is out there − not as tiny as Laura Bridgman's but possibly not as great as we would like to imagine, either."
Someone on Twitter asked: "Would you rather speak all languages or be able to speak to all animals?"
That made me realize that there is no reason to presume that all animals speak the same language or that all dogs speak the same language or that all dogs of the same breed speak the same language. In fact, language is independent of physical characteristics.
I'm having a word-finding problem that doesn't seem to be aphasia and doesn't seem related to Freud's ideas about forgetting. I think one word and type a different complete word, not a typo.
I've started making a list of such instances, trying to make sense of it and learn to cope with it:
· logical becomes local
· front becomes from
· attended becomes attending
· when becomes win
· since becomes when
· woke becomes work
· booths become books
· made becomes meant
wide becomes wild
Have you ever heard of such a problem? Is there a name for it?
After his stroke, my Dad couldn't speak. A few years later, he was unable to swallow.
At first, the brain damage hadn't affected his ability to swallow. But after four years of not speaking, the muscles of his throat weakened and atrophied, and there was nerve deterioration as well.
That observation led me to wonder if speech might be a secondary rather than a primary evolutionary development.
Making noises with the throat may exercise muscles needed for swallowing. It is possible that the ability and desire to make sounds through the throat evolved because strong throat muscles are necessary for eating and drinking. And once the ability to generate a wide range of sounds had evolved, that capability could be used for communication, which further improved survivability.
In the beginning was the need to eat and drink. The Word came later.
Consider the evolutionary value of the beer-belly gut. Your metabolism changes as you get older, such that you ten to get fatter even if you continue to eat and exercise as you did before. That means you become less attractive to women, and hence less likely to stray from your mate. In other words, your physical deterioration makes it easier for you to shift your focus from mating to caring for your family, with obvious survival benefits for your off-spring.
Also consider the evolutionary value of snoring, which warns away predators at night and which keeps the snorer's partner awake so the partner can keep an eye out for predators and enemies.
And consider the survival value of physical discomfort. Your arms are short and their flexibility is limited. That means you can't scratch your own back, which means you need someone to scratch it for you. Depending on others to help you and them depending on you to helps builds social relationships which are important for survival.
And, of course, human babies are born helpless. The more helpless the better, because the stronger the parent-child bond that builds.
In the past, war had evolutionary benefits, spreading both genes and ideas. But thanks to advances in transportation and communications technology, the Internet and cellphones, ideas and genes now spread and mix globally without war.
War forced people to migrate either as attackers or victims. Without war, people might have stayed put from one generation to the next, with little contact even between neighboring villages. War led to interbreeding as opposed to in-breeding, which meant less susceptibility to illness and genetic defects due to commonality of genes. And, without the mixing and churning and frantic competition of populations at war, there would have been less development and spreading of ideas.
In other words, war resulted in benefits for mankind like the benefits of cross-pollinate and spreading of seeds do for plants.
Mankind evolved when war was necessary and although war no longer benefits human development, it could be many years before our impulse for it atrophies.
But meanwhile, wars may become less frequent, less intense, and less costly, as the urge to war no longer has a basis in evolutionary necessity.
According to the Second Law of Thermodynamics, the universe and any closed system within the universe perpetually moves toward greater disorder. But I battle disorder every day - organizing books, straightening my apartment, adding order to my physical world. So I question the credibility of that law.
Perhaps order is in the eye of the beholder.
According to chaos theory, complex and apparently random physical phenomena, such as weather and ocean currents, exhibit complex patterns which computer analysis can reveal. And to the mind of a teenager, the chaos of an apparently messy bedroom may have a fundamental organization.
Perhaps the universe as a whole, when seen from a different perspective, may have a deeper more complex order that we have not yet recognized. The universe may have an inherent tendency toward greater order, counterbalancing the increasing disorder that scientists now observe.
My idea of order need not be the same as someone else's idea of order. And maybe both entropy and order are subjective illusions.
Our ability to perceive and to process what we have perceived includes vulnerability to illusions. We can enjoy movies because we interpret a series of still frames as continuous motion. Is that ability accidental? Beings with the ability to enjoy movies probably have an evolutionary advantage − they'll be happier and hence be more likely to live longer :-)
Perhaps reality is discontinuous even near-at-hand and at human scale, but we don't notice because of how we automatically smooth over the little gaps in time. I can imagine that more than one reality could co-exist in the same time and space, one in the gaps of the other.
The island of Maui in Hawaii was named for a goddess of that same name. Before Europeans arrived in that part of the world, that goddess and her legend were also known a thousand miles south in the Samoan Islands, and hundreds of miles south of that in the Tonga Islands and nearly a thousand miles south of that in New Zealand. Back then, the only way to travel long distances in the South Pacific was by out-rigger canoe. For the legend of Maui to have spread thousands of miles, people must have travelled that distance in canoes through the open ocean, where on a clear day waves can be ten feet high, and on a stormy day the waves can be horrendous.
They had no navigational instruments. So how could they have known where they were and where they were going?
And in the open ocean, because of the curvature of the Earth, they could only see a few miles to the horizon.
Imagine the faith and courage it would have taken to row a canoe in the open ocean − with no land in sight and no assurance that you would ever reach land − for weeks or even months.
Then imagine a simpler explanation. Instead of hundreds or thousands of people with primitive technology making that trek over the course of hundreds of years, imagine an extraterrestrial making a few stops on South Pacific islands and retelling the same story of Maui.
In a given territory there are a finite number of niches in which living creatures can thrive. Species compete and survive and evolve in those niches. Once a species has adapted to the point where it thrives in a particular niche and dominates there, no other life form will have an opportunity to adapt and evolve there.
Nature doesn't tend toward perfection. The first good approximation fills the niche.
Likewise, in a given social or political or cultural climate, ideas and beliefs and their physical manifestations such as inventions, sacred books, means for communicating and recording ideas survive and evolve in a finite number of niches. If slaves could do manual labor, there was no need to develop machinery to do it. If the abacus was good enough for everyday calculations, there was no need to develop mathematics.
When the niches in a particular social structure are full, there is no opportunity for new ideas or new technology to evolve until catastrophic events break the structure into pieces. Then, over time, the pieces coalesce in new patterns, with new empty niches to be filled, often inspired by fragments remaining from the previous structure, and opening the opportunity for new creativity and technological advancement, until the new set of niches is filled.
Today, global transportation and communication are leading to the breakup of what once had been isolated and stable social structures. And the societies that fostered the evolution of the technology that made that happen are in turmoil, changing unpredictably due to tectonic shifts in economies and ways of life. Desperate masses of people with no home and no jobs or low-paying jobs and no role in society and no sense that their effort/work/creativity can provide them with a livelihood are likely to trigger a global breakup of social and economic structures.
Over time the pieces will coalesce, and new ideas/beliefs/technology will evolve from the wreckage, inspired by remaining fragments of the previous stage, perhaps forming many separate, isolated, local structures, as in the past; or, if the infrastructure that supports global communication and transportation survives this upheaval, the new structure will be global, with a multitude of new niches to be filled with an unprecedented surge of creativity, leading to a new stable global social structure.
By the time of Archimedes, the ancient Greek/Roman world had remarkable mechanical know-how. What prevented them from developing steam, electrical, and internal combustion engines? Perhaps slavery. If necessity is the mother of invention, where there is no necessity, invention does not take place. Whatever they needed to do, they had cheap energy readily available in the form of slaves. Hence there was no need to develop alternative forms of energy. The Industrial Revolution in England and then in New England coincided with the abolition of slavery. and industrialization could not happen in the South until it, too, abandoned slavery.
Near the end of the movie The Day After Tomorrow we learn that a new Ice Age, ironically triggered by global warming, is likely to last a long time because the new ice cover over the Northern Hemisphere will reflect sunlight. If such a disaster should strike, one way of reversing that process would be to color the ice, preferably black. That effort could take a long time and could be costly, but the resulting black ice would absorb rather than reflect sunlight, and hence would lead to the ice melting.
NB − I am not an oceanographer. I have no technical skills that could be applied in such a project and no money to fund it. I'm hoping that people with the necessary skills and resources might find this idea intriguing enough to explore and refine.
Have you ever seen or heard of a little green mammal?
In biospheres with lots of grass and leaves, we find green reptiles and green birds, but no green mammals.
If color is a survival factor for reptiles and birds, why not for mammals? Of all the species of mammals, wouldn't you expect at least one to take that niche?
It's easy to use Darwinian truisms to explain the color or structure of any creature after the fact. But what about the capabilities and the colors that by the same logic should exist, but don't?
Mammals evolved from reptiles and many reptiles are green, presumably because of the survival value of that color in many environmental niches. It would not have taken mutations for there to be green mammals. Rather, all that was needed was for one or more species to keep their green skin color and continue benefitting from that color. Why didn't that happen?
Supposedly life began in the sea, with fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Then some reptiles and amphibians moved onto solid ground; and some of those reptiles became dinosaurs; and some of those dinosaurs evolved into birds; and other reptiles evolved to mammals. Or at least that's the usual high-school-level pitch. We're taught that all animals on earth share DNA/genetic code; and that mammals came after reptiles.
If that is true, then why don't any mammals have green skin, like snakes and crocodiles and frogs?
A believer in Darwin might conclude that the absence of green mammals suggests that mammals evolved somewhere where green foliage and green grass were rare, if not non-existent. Perhaps not on Earth.
Yesterday, I had to stop for a hook-and-ladder truck backing into a fire station garage. A driver in the cab up front, working in coordination with another driver at the back end, maneuvered it into a tight space. The fire truck reminded me of a huge dinosaur like a brontosaurus, and it dawned on me that maybe such dinosaurs were more complex and intelligent than generally presumed.
I never understood why archaeologists presumed that brain size correlates with intelligence in dinosaurs while at the same time they presume the reverse in the case of homo sapiens Neanderthals. Neanderthals had bigger brains._
And why do scientists presume that large dinosaurs had only one brain? Wouldn't it be more practical for such a beast to have two, like a fire truck?
As I recall from a recent museum visit, tyrannosaurus rex had a large bone structure between the legs that didn't seem to have a purpose, except perhaps extra weight for balance. Perhaps that bone structure protected a second brain. Such a beast might have had a small brain up by the eyes, for visual pre-processing, and a second, larger one located near the middle of the body, and well-protected by bone and muscle. This reminds me of the evolution of PC design, from single processor computers to multi-processor machines, where separate chips pre-process graphics and do other functions to speed overall performance.
Why should that matter?
If such dinosaurs had greater brain power than generally presumed, that would alter our notions of evolution-related progress. And if a two-brained species could thrive for millions or tens of millions of years, that would expand the range of what we consider to be possible, not just on Earth, but also elsewhere in the universe.
The body that each of us has is a rental. You identify with the self or soul that temporarily has use of your body and presume that whatever connection you might have with a higher purpose is by way of your self or soul.
But your body also connects you to others and to the physical world; and both humanity as a whole and the physical universe have self-regulating mechanisms that connect you to whatever higher purpose there may be.
For example, in H. G. Wells' War of the Worlds, invaders from Mars quickly destroy every human defense. Then, suddenly, they die. Germs that humans are immune to from frequent exposure are new and deadly to the invaders. The biosphere of Earth, including germs, serves as a defense system. The entire Earth functions as a self-regulating system, as a single organism, reminiscent of the ancient belief in Gaia, the goddess of Earth who was the Earth itself.
Watching the Tom Cruise remake of War of the Worlds, a couple of alternative disaster-movie plots occurred to me.
In the H.G. Wells story, the eco-system of Earth operates as a single organism. The germs and viruses to which man has built immunity operate as a global defense system against invaders from outer space. The sudden death of the invaders at the end shocks us into realizing the important defensive role of organisms that we normally think of as enemies to our health and well-being.
But the same mechanism could just as easily work in reverse. When Europeans first arrived in America, they were lucky that they didn't die of diseases that Native Americans were immune to. Rather, they brought new diseases, like chicken pox and small pox that decimated the Natives. Along those lines, a benevolent, well-meaning alien species might inadvertently bring with them microbes that wipe out the human race.
In another plot line, the delicate environmental balance of Earth could act as a defense against aliens. In The Day After Tomorrow a change of temperature of a few degrees in the oceans changes currents which causes cataclysmic climate changes. Imagine an alien invasion and resulting total war leading to similar heating of the oceans and devastating weather consequences that wipe out the invaders, while leaving a handful of humans alive to start afresh − global environmental collapse as Earth's defense mechanism.
In still another plot line, aliens might use the delicate environmental balance of Earth to their advantage, as a way to destroy mankind, without the risks to themselves that would come from war. In this story, aliens, not man, are responsible for global warming.
Why presume that the aliens who might threaten us will be intelligent?
Imagine intergalactic worm-like creatures − long hollow tubes that swallow and assimilate matter that they randomly encounter.
Imagine these creatures can grow to enormous length, but are narrow, so they are almost impossible to see by telescope.
Imagine such a creature is light sensitive. It detects targets based on reflected light.
Imagine it could eat its way through Earth.
Imagine if there's an invasion of Earth by beings from another galaxy, and the invaders are the chosen ones of God, and Earth is their promised land.
Congress has been deadlocked for years, accomplishing little, due to partisan rivalry. Some think term limits might help change the way Washington works, but that would take a Constitutional amendment. Others look for campaign finance reform, but for every rule there is a loophole.
I suggest eliminating the seniority rules of the House and Senate. Replace those rules with an equitable non-party way of establishing committee memberships and chairmanships, and much of the bartering of favors would go away, smashing long-established personal power bases, and weakening the power of the parties.
Members of Congress could choose which committees they wanted to be on and membership could be decided among the candidates by lot. Chairmen too could be selected by lot and could stay in the post no more than a year. As a result, incumbents would no longer have a huge advantage over new-comers in elections, leading to shorter terms. And with no clear centers of power to focus on, lobbyists would have to dilute their efforts, paying more attention to individuals. They would no longer be motivated to direct vast sums of money toward particular races. By reducing the incentive for corruption, corruption would decline.
How could we get from here to there? Congress would never make such a change. The President doesn't have the authority to do it. A constitutional amendment could bring about such a change, but that would never happen because state legislatures, which have to ratify amendments, have the same kind of seniority rules, with similar entrenched power structures.
But there is a practical solution.
The effect of seniority rules is that some elected representatives have far more power than others. If my district has a freshman congressman or a freshman senator, I am not fully and equally represented in Congress.
Hence a group of citizens could bring a class-action suit against Congress, challenging seniority rules. Then the Supreme Court could decide the issue, on the basis of the principle of one person one vote.
Many people presume that the most memorable sentence from the Declaration of Independence is embodied in the Constitution. It is not, but it should be, as a long-overdue amendment.
"We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."
founding fathers could not agree on including this sentence in the
To make up for that, they later passed the Bill of Rights, as
those amendments were far more limited than that one bold
statement in the
Declaration of Independence. Can we do any better today?
The concepts expressed in that sentence could help guide Supreme Court decisions on important issues.
Of course, the words would need to be fine-tuned for clarification and to make them consistent with current-day beliefs and parlance, for instance −
· Delete "by their Creator," likewise to avoid the religion issue.
The sentence would then read: "All people are equal under the law. They are endowed with certain unalienable rights, and among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
This sweeping statement would then need some further detail to make clear that the right to liberty and also the right to life could be abridged as punishment for crimes, that one person's pursuit of happiness may not be detrimental to the rights of others, and to define who is a citizen.
In this contentious, polarized time, can we find a way to embed that basic statement of rights in our Constitution, for the benefit and protection of future generations?
If the president dies or is removed from office or is incapacitated, the vice president becomes president. Otherwise, the vice president has very little to do. He can preside over the Senate and cast the deciding vote in case of a tie. But he has no other official duty.
Frequently, former vice presidents run for president. But typically while serving as vice president they do not gain the kind of experience that would make them good candidates for president. And former vice presidents have rarely won presidential elections.
The post often seems like forced retirement. A capable and well-known politician is chosen as a running mate because he might help the ticket win some state or block of voters. Then he or she cools his or her heels until the top job becomes open or until he or she can run for president.
In the United Kingdom, the prime minister governs and the queen or king takes care of ceremonial appearances. In the U.S. the vice president does some ceremonial filling in but does not have status anywhere near equal to the president. Sending the vice president on a diplomatic or good-will mission means far less than the president appearing in person.
In recent history there was one interesting exception. Because of the personal relationship between Dick Cheney and George Bush, Cheney played a major role in decision-making. While I did not agree with many of the decisions that duo made, I found their division of labor intriguing and promising.
Because of his age, Cheney was not aiming to run for president himself. And because of his previous experience, he had greater understanding of the workings of government and the complexities of foreign affairs than did Bush. That they effectively shared power had nothing to do with the Constitution. It happened solely at the will of Bush.
In today's world, the job of president is enormous, far more complex than any individual can effectively deal with. The best presidents choose excellent advisers and cabinet members and delegate authority rather than depending on their own knowledge and judgement. Bush seems to have elevated this style to a new level, sharing the power and the burdens of the office of president with his vice president, apparently without the rivalry that often arises from the sharing of power. And if anything had happened to Bush, Cheney would have been ready to govern on his own, immediately, without an extended learning period, which could be dangerous in time of crisis.
I hope that future candidates for president will be wise enough, confident enough, and humble enough to choose more experienced running mates who can serve as mentors, and whom they can rely on to share the presidency with them from day one, rather than simply waiting in the wings.
In the US, the process of making laws is long and complicated. It typically involves public hearings, committee meetings and approval, open debate in the House and the Senate, passage by both the House and the Senate, the signature of the President, and, in case of legal challenge, approval by federal courts, up to the Supreme Court.
If a piece of legislation is important to you or those you know, the issue seems clear and the process feels broken. You want immediate action, and instead it takes months or years before anything happens, and the resultant law is often a compromise, rather than the measure that you were hoping for.
Originally, the electors who voted for president and vice president were selected by state legislatures, rather than directly by the citizenry. That was later modified so the selection of electors was determined by popular vote. Perhaps now a similar change should make the approval of legislation a matter of popular vote.
With the universal availability of the Internet and smart phones, it would be possible to bypass representative government and, at least in some cases, substitute direct referendum, as a clearer reflection of the will of the people, as true democracy.
But referenda appeal to the emotional mob response of the uninformed public. And with referenda only one specific version of a measure is presented for vote, without the opportunity for amendments or compromise. That process puts the true legislative power in the hands of those who write the specific words that the public votes on, which makes referenda a popular tool of dictators seeking to create the illusion of public support and democratic process.
While the Constitution was written in a different era when communication was slow and direct referenda were impossible, the principle of representative government is still important. Theoretically, the public elects individuals whose judgment they trust, and those representatives strive to understand complex issues and arrive at agreement with other wise and rational representatives from other regions and constituencies. The lengthy multi-staged discussion provides opportunities for all opinions to be expressed and weighed and for the wording to be fine-tuned many times. Delay forces rumination and compromise, which are essential for democracy.
(An Open Letter sent to Rand Paul and Elizabeth Warren, November 15, 2014)
Please consider filing a suit under the Freedom of Information Act for release to you of information about you collected and stored as part of the PRISM program.
No information was specifically gathered about you pursuant to an issue related to national security. And while the entire database is a matter of national security, your small piece of that is not.
Also, the information you would be seeking is for your use and only your use. That means that release of the information to you does not constitute a breach of your privacy.
You should file such a suit:
1) to determine what is in fact being collected, to better enable you to make appropriate judgments in your oversight role as senator; and
2) to set a precedent for personal access to PRISM data.
At this point it is impossible to do away with PRISM. But the data so gathered might prove useful to innocent people whose privacy rights have been violated.
Individuals should be able to periodically access their own information:
1) As a way to verify that the information is correct, rather than a result of mistaken identity or misinterpretation. This kind of access to information about oneself stored in PRISM would be like mandated access to one's credit reports.
2) As a tool in uncovering and dealing with instances of identity theft.
3) As a source of evidence for the defense in criminal and civil trials to establish facts, as well as state of mind.
4) As a source of raw data that could be used as input in personal profile software, to help you build a predictive model of yourself, so you can better understand your own preferences and behavior patterns; giving you a better idea of who you are and hence giving you better control over your own life.
If individuals had that kind of access to their own data, they could come to see such data collection as having positive benefits that, in part, counterbalance the loss of privacy.
(Written October 17, 2014. That particular protest is now ancient history, but the approach suggested here could prove effective in similar circumstances both in Hong Kong and elsewhere in the future.)
You have captured the attention of worldwide media.
You have won the sympathy of billions of people worldwide.
Now it is time for you to give your well-wishers a way to help you.
Pick a high-profile global Chinese company, preferably one dependent on exports and owned, at least in part, by the Chinese government.
Declare a worldwide boycott on that company's products.
If after two weeks the Chinese government does not grant you the guarantees of democracy that you require, call for a sell-off of that company's stock and expand the boycott to include one or more of that company's largest business partners.
If there has been no progress two weeks later, expand the boycott to a second major Chinese company, with the same pattern of escalation.
Continue adding companies to the boycott one Chinese company and one trading partner of such a company each month until your demands are met.
Such an approach could be far more effective than slowing traffic in Hong Kong.
With that approach, you ally yourself with billions of people worldwide.
With that approach, if the Chinese government cracks down and arrests you or even worse deals with you violently as in Tiananmen Square, the worldwide boycott effort will continue and grow until the Chinese government is forced to surrender to your demands.
May the Force be with you.
We need to encourage more volunteerism. There are many kinds of work that need to be done but don't get done because it would be too costly for government or for charities to pay for it. And there are many people who are unemployed who could help and would want to help if there were some tangible benefit for doing so.
Redefine national service to include volunteer work for charities. The more national service you do, the more you receive in tax credits, and you can choose when to exercise those credits.
For instance, if you are unemployed for six months and do volunteer work during that time, you could cash in those credits after you find a new job and have a significant tax bill. If you do volunteer work while employed you might want to use your credits immediately. And if you choose a national service career. such as serving in the military, you might want to save up credits for use after retirement.
With such a system in place, current charities might flourish and extend their services, and new charitable organizations would be formed to do more work that really needs to be done.
Celebrating the British Open and the retirement of Jack Nicklaus, the Bank of Scotland issued five-pound notes with the picture of Nicklaus, and tourists, collectors, and golf fans rushed to buy them. Meanwhile the US Post Office through www.stamps.com let's you, for a premium price, design your own officially-approved postage stamps, for instance, with photos of your kids.
Congress should consider putting the images on US currency up for bid, as an alternative way to raise revenue and reduce taxes.
They could start with pennies. It now costs one and half cents to mint a penny. In other words, the government loses money making pennies, and it is likely that pennies will be eliminated in the near future. Instead of that, the government could sell advertising, stamping on pennies a company logo and/or the image of a billionaire instead instead of Lincoln and the Lincoln Memorial.
From there, the project could be expanded to include all coins and paper currency as well.
Imagine an annual on-line auction for each denomination. Imagine all the wealthy people who might want to see their picture on the $1 bill, and might be willing to pay millions for that ubiquitous honor. Corporations already pay tens of millions of dollars for the naming rights to the stadiums of professional sports teams. How much more might they be willing to spend to have their corporate logo and tag line on US currency? Or imagine fans of a rock star or movie/TV star or super model or sports hero willing to do class-action bidding for the personality/image of their choice − combining millions of small bids automatically online, like voting for baseball all-stars or for winners of American Idol.
If you could raise billions of dollars that way, every year, why not? And as a result, the currency itself could become stronger in foreign markets than it is today, simply from collectors taking millions of dollars in bills out of circulation.
And if that that project works, that would psychologically prepare us for advertising on military uniforms, tanks, planes, as well as on government buildings and historic monuments. Then we would be well on our way to free-enterprise, tax-free Nirvana. Hallelujah!
As late as April 15, you can make last minute contributions to your IRA, SEP and other retirement funds that count for your previous year's taxes. That means that you can use tax preparation programs like TurboTax to maximize your contribution and minimize your tax.
Why not allow charitable contributions on the same basis? Then you could decide how much you would like to contribute with full knowledge of your tax situation, rather than guessing at the end of the calendar year. Such programs could then prompt you with suggestions of reliable charities dedicated to the kinds of activities that you want to support, and help you make the desired contributions online.
When you walk out of Grand Central Station, you are immediately greeted by panhandlers with heart-wrenching stories on signs and pathetic, sympathetic facial expressions. They are almost always individuals, the majority claiming that they are veterans, but women as well, some of them pregnant.
On the streets of Paris, the panhandlers are usually families, including small kids, purporting to be refugees, sitting on a blankets, with what may be all their belongings near at hand.
It's a worldwide problem, and probably always has been.
Most passersby, if they knew these tales were real, would give generously. But how can you tell what is true and what is fiction? Maybe you give loose change on the spur of the moment. But there is always the lingering doubt − are you being suckered, or could this be a variant of the situation in Slumdog Millionaire and in Oliver Twist and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, where beggars are systematically exploited, and sometimes children are deliberately mutilated to make them look more pathetic.
I'm a bit of a Dagwood, the cartoon character who frequently said "There ought to be a law." I can't help but think of what might be done change things for the better.
Might the omnipresence of cellphones help?
Imagine a program for certifying panhandlers, perhaps run by homeless shelters, and sponsored by corporations. When the administrators are convinced that someone is truly in need, that person is assigned a bar code which he or she can display. With a cellphone app, a passerby can scan that barcode and immediately make a donation, by credit card or by PayPal, that gets credited to the account of that particular panhandler. The donor might be able to see a quick description of what this person needs and why and what he or she has already collected toward that goal. And sponsoring corporations could choose to match donations up to some preset limit. The money and/or credits could be collected by the panhandlers at the same shelters that do the certification.
Would anyone like to make some variant of this a reality?
We have grown accustomed to thinking of the U.S. as a melting pot, with people from many different cultural backgrounds. But the same is true of other countries around the world. Many people feel a dissociation between their cultural identity and the political entity that rules the geographic area where they happen to live. This dissociation leads to feelings of isolation, of being out-siders, of not belonging. Where cultural minorities are large enough, that can lead to political unrest, rebellion, and civil war.
We increasingly find ourselves with two intertwined identities − the bonds that arise from where we happen to be physically located and the bonds that arise from cultural background and belief. Now that the Internet reaches all countries and is available to the many, rather than just the elite few, it is time to consider the opportunities this communications capability opens, not just for increasing mutual understanding and building virtual culture-based communities, but also for changing our concepts of what constitutes a government and what it's role should be.
One possibility would be to recognize cultural citizenship in addition to geographic citizenship. I was born in the United States and live here and pay taxes here and vote here. But I may feel I have a cultural identity that is German or Irish or Scottish or Italian. Someone who lives in Israel may feel cultural allegiance to Judaism or to the Arabic world.
Consider the possibilities. For instance, say that you have the opportunity to declare your cultural citizenship. Then say that some part of the taxes collected from you goes to support an organizational entity devoted to your chosen culture, and you have the right to vote to determine the leadership and direction of that cultural entity. Then in a country with many cultures, no single culture would be the winner and all the others losers or minorities. Everyone, regardless of where you live, would belong to the culture of your choice and could contribute toward the preservation of its traditions and help decide the direction of its future development.
This virtual, cultural citizenship need not be limited to national or religious or other pre-existing cultures. People should be able to belong to whatever cultural entities they wish, including newly created ones, based on common interests. And cultural citizenship need not be all-or-nothing. Imagine you could, for example, choose to be 60% German, 20% Turkish, 10% Argentinian, 10% Mormon Church. In that case, the taxes and the voting rights would be similarly divided.
The infrastructure and the habits of behavior supported by the Internet make this bizarre notion possible. Would it be desirable? How might it work? And how might we get from here to there?
(There will always be dictators, so we need to find better ways of dealing with them. The following essay was written in 1998, when Fidel Castro was still alive and still ruled Cuba, but the ideas are still relevant.)
Perhaps Major League Baseball could help put an end to tensions between the U.S. and Cuba. Baseball is extremely popular in Cuba, and Castro himself used to be a quality player with pro potential before he became a revolutionary and then dictator.
Consider the possibilities if Major League Baseball were to gratis, for the good of world peace, offer Castro personal ownership of a major league franchise for Havana. The sole condition would be that he retire from politics. This would in one swift stroke give Castro a way to step down, gracefully, without losing face, give Congress and the President an excuse to re-establish normal relations, without losing face, create a firm basis for quickly opening commerce between Cuba and the US, with all the multiple business contacts and opportunities related to the games, the news coverage, the television rights, the stadium, the travel, the visitors/tourists, etc., and provide a common ground for understanding between the American people and the Cuban people, through their enthusiasm for baseball.
Such a move could not only reduce political tensions, but could also be the first step toward establishment of a Caribbean or Latin American League, which could have equal status with the American and National Leagues, and have inter-league play with the American and National League teams, and participate in the World Series.
Now consider present issues with Kim Jong Un of North Korea. What might he want? What might he consider valuable as an individual that could become the basis for negotiations for reducing the possibility of nuclear war?
Remember his fascination with basketball and Dennis Rodman. Maybe an NBA franchise would prove tempting. Or remember the academy-award-winning move Argo. Maybe Kim Jong Un would be tempting by the prospect of starring in a Hollywood blockbuster, perhaps in the role of a hero who saves the world from alien invasion.
If you take out a dictator, he gets replaced by someone else at least as nasty or you leave a power vacuum. If you keep piling on economic sanctions, innocent people suffer and starve.
Consider unorthodox solutions that play on the unique and eccentric interests and tastes of the dictator in question.
Unlike UPS and FedEx which the US Postal Service competes with, Postal Service is required by law to the entire country, not just the most lucrative markets, the cities where the population is concentrated.
It is important that everybody, including rural customers, continue to be served and on equal terms (same price and same frequency of delivery). But the cost of providing that universal makes the Postal Service non-competitive.
Make universal service a requirement for its competitors as well. Require them either tp serve everyone, with no surcharge for rural deliveries and with equal frequency of deliveries, or to pay subsidies to the US Postal Service, proportional to the extra costs it incurs by providing that service.
That approach could make the Postal Service more financially viable, make the competitive playing field among delivery companies more even, and ensure equal delivery service for all citizens, regardless of where they live.
Different kinds of creatures typically live for different periods of time − some for a day or less and some for hundreds of years. And while they all live in the same world. that world must look very different depending on longevity. If you only lived for a day and on that day a hurricane hit, your priorities would be very different from the priorities of a creature with a three hundred year life span for whom storms seem normal and transient.
In major issues facing the US, short-term interests often come into conflict with long-term interests.
Thanks to the foresight of the nation's founders, the US Constitution was engineered to provide a balance between short-term and long-term interests. The members of the House of Representatives serve for two years, the president for four years, senators for six, and the Supreme Court for life.
But with advances in scientific knowledge, long-term consequences of present-day decisions become increasingly clear and seem increasingly dire, and the horizon of concern to the next election or even the horizon of a lifetime is not far enough to properly balance long-term risks.
The way our governng bodies are now constituted, they cannot be expected to give sufficient weight to the long-term, possibly irreversible consequences of their present-day decisions.
I don't know how to get from where we are now to where we need to be to achieve the necessary far-sighted balance in legislation. But I can imagne a scifi solution.
I'm reminded of medieval times when classes were static from one generation to the next, and the Three Estates − the commons, the church and the nobility − were each represented in government, presenting their competing points of view and, in the best of times, striving to arrive at consructive compromises that protected the rights and interests of each.
I'm also reminded of Plato's Republic, where classes were deliberately trained and brain-washed from birth for the roles they were destined to play in society, under the benevolent protection of the Guardians and under the wise rule of the Philosopher King.
I'm also reminded of Brave New World where classes were genetically engineered.
I imagine a time when it is possible to genetically engineer longevity. Then it would be medically possible for everyone to live a very long time, but that would necessitate reducing the birth rate so as not to lead to diisastrous overpopulation. But doing that would make mankind far more vunerable to extinction in case of some new dsease or natural disaster.
This techology would be used insead to create classes distingushed by their longevity, and the governing bodies would be based on longevity.
One house of Congress would consist of people with short lives, who would champion the needs and concerns of the mmediate future. Another house of Congress would consist of people who will live far longer and are much more concerned about consequences that would show up decades or even centuriies in the future. Pehaps there should be a third house as well s, to represent the middle ground.
When asked as a child whether I would like to become a doctor since doctors save lives, I replied that we all die; doctors just postpone that. What matters is to have a reason for living. I wanted to become an author because authors can help people realize what they can and should do with their lives.
How could Shakespeare have written so well about the murder of kings? Was that how he thought? Should Queen Elizabeth have considered him a threat?
Dostoyevsky read a newspaper story about a murder and imaginatively understood how such a person might think and why such a person might do such things. He could hear in his head how such a person might speak and justify himself. Without ever having acted in such a way, he could write Crime and Punishment.
The capacity for understanding people who are very different from ourselves allows authors to write and readers to enjoy such stories and allows actors to portray many different kinds of characters.
Thanks to this ability writers, readers, and actors experience multiple lives − not just the one that they live. And the insight and empathy gained from those vicarious experiences makes their actual experience of life richer and more complete, bringing them closer to the people they know and love, because they can more fully appreciate what others are feeling and thinking. That's the primary reason why I write.
Regardless of whether characters in some way resemble me or people I have known, what matters to me is the experience of creating characters who come alive in my imagination such that I can hear them speak and see them act in ways that I would not have expected.
Stories are born, not made. Some characters and plots come to life, and grow and change. Others remain static.
For an author, the experience of bringing a character to life is similar to becoming fluent in a foreign language. When you immerse yourself in a language, you can reach a point when you start to dream in it. And when you develop your characters to a critical point, you start to dream what they say and what they do. You hear their words and see their action, and the story takes on a life of its own.
I write and read fiction for the enriching experience of living many times.
Only in the
worst novels do the authors control and manipulate their
Rather characters come alive and determine their own destiny, despite the author's well-meaning plans for them.
Writing such a book is a delightful adventure of discovery.
When I create characters and scenes, I am performing thought-experiments, a la Einstein. If I put these characters together under these circumstances, what is likely to happen and why and how does that affect my notions of human nature and destiny. That is why I write and enjoy writing, regardless of whether I ever have an audience.
The novels I write are memoirs of lives I haven't lived yet.
There are many
people write because they enjoy the experience of writing, the
accomplishment they get from finishing a novel, the insights
that gives them.
Many people run marathons and enjoy doing so even though they have no expectation of ever winning.
I'm reminded of a book by Jane Smiley 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel which provides lots of helpful advice about the process of writing novels, and conveys much of the pleasure of just doing it.
It's great if you have the temperament and the time to both write and market. But for many the marketing is a bridge too far.
Time travel/dislocation is one tool for the novelist. It is not intended to be realistic, only plausible. Used well, it can be very effective.
I begin with
basic unanswerable questions − what, if anything, comes before
life; and what,
if anything, comes after. Add to that the mystery that in some
sense we remain
the same person ro same identity as our body changes radically
over the years.
Normal life is magic − slow magic, the changes happening so
slowly that we
don't notice them until we meet someone we haven't seen in
years or some event
shakes us enough so we see our selves in the mirror with fresh
eyes. When those
same changes happen rapidly, that's fast magic.
In Nevermind, a couple meet, fall in love, marry, and soon after divorce back during and shortly after WW II. By chance they meet agin 40 years later on a cruise ship and fall for each other again, before they realize who they are.
In Beyond the Fourth Door, two people wake up 40 years older than they were when they fall asleep. They have no memory of what happened during that 40 years, but to those around them they have led normal lives. it isn't a case of amnesia. It happened to both of them separately. And it turns out that they had been in love but had broken up back in college.
In part 1 of Breeze, a college girl suddenly goes into a coma and her lover/boyfriend tries to cope with the aftermath. In part 2, that same girl wakes up in the body of Briseis in the Trojan War − the story, not the historical Troy. In part 3, she wakes up at the Eleusinian Mysteries as part of a mix-up in an attempt at a kind of deliberate soul transference.
You could say that those three novels explore the same mysteries of life from different, perspectives.
While I don't put faith in any of the tenets of any religion, my books are all attempts to make sense of life and death and the universe.
A point of style
just occurred to me that I wasn't aware of before, having
followed it by instinct,
without being conscious of why.
He is is subtlely but significantly different from he's. And similarly with other contractions of "is".
He's puts the focus on what follows − adjective, participle of noun. But he is puts the focus on the fact of being, as if there could be some doubt, as in he knows who he is.
She knows it's right. She knows she's going to
the city. The
focus is on what comes after the contraction. She knows it is
right − there was
some doubt. She knows she is going − instead of not going.
The effect of this subtle difference is cumulative. When it's done right, it feels right. When it's done wrong, friction slows the reader down and puts the meaning of sentences a little out of focus.
− The first draft is the cocoon in which the real story matures.
− The need to write fiction is an incurable disease you are born with.
− I write to find out what I think and believe.
− Create characters, not ideas.
− Thinking about your book is the real work. Putting it on paper is easy.
− In rewrite mode − anomalies are opportunities, adding layers to the narrative.
− Sometimes a book happens to you − like you are pregnant with it.
− One measure of the power of an author is how little needs to happen to show the characters undergoing enormous life-shifting changes. the best can tell a story with both subtlety and passion, where a look or a word has the narrative power of an earthquake. By that measure, Penelope Fitzgerald is one of the finest novelists of all time.
− The creative phase of writing is very different from the polishing and editing phase.
− To write something new or to significantly rewrite, I need to find a generative phrase − a line that implies a whole character, a whole life; a line that leads to another line and another and that generates a rhythm that carries the story forward. That's a very different process from analysis and criticism.
− Sometimes a good line is a hazard. You can like a line so much that you keep it, even though it wrecks the flow of the lines around it and of the story as a whole.
− The story is the vessel into which I pour my blood and guts − making exterior what's interior, so I can look at it and try to make sense of it.
− In writing, what is most private and personal is what connects us most with others, for that is what we most have in common.
− The aim is to get to a state of flow in which what matters to you finds external expression, and that external expression triggers in others something resembling your own internal experience.
Poetry happens when a word you would have never expected, turns out to be perfect, and changes how you think forever after.
− Definition of poetry − When words explode in your mind, and that feels good.
− Our self-knowledge and our knowledge of others is limited. Every memoir we write is fictitious in ways we do not fathom. It is more honest to call what we write fiction and to shape the story the way its internal logic demands.
− The characters appear in your dreams and you write down what they say and do; then edit and rewrite. It's their book, not yours. Treat them with respect and follow their advice.
− Once your characters come alive, you are always writing − no matter where you are and no matter what else you might be doing at the same time.
− Publication does not equal success. You have to enjoy writing for its own sake. Half a million people run in marathons in the US each year. Only a couple dozen win. They simply enjoy doing it.
− For me, when the characters come alive and take charge, and I'm just along for the ride − that's an author's high: a wonderful ride.
− When you begin your novel, the characters are your means for telling the story. If and when your characters come alive, the characters become the story.
− Typically, I begin with a critical situation and scene. The I hear the main characters talking in that scene and from that begin to flesh out who they are and some of the scenes and incidents that might have led to that point. Then I decide on an opening scene. Then fill in.
− Aim high. The sky is no limit. Infinity is next to nothing. Just divide anything by zero.
− Typos can be fun in unexpected ways. They often lead to puns and sometimes to stories and novels. They are like random mutations, some of which win in the struggle for survival. My writing would be lifeless without the inspiration of my typos.
− The Tao of Aphasia. To fight aphasia and memory glitches, empty your mind and let thoughts and words enter on their own. The harder you try, the harder remembering becomes. The paths, not the memories themselves wear out. Let your mind open new paths. Control by not controlling.
Someone on Twitter asked "What is the one theme or question that you find yourself exploring over and over again in your stories?"
Here's my answer − not one, but six:
1 - free will vs. determination
2 - meaning and nature of the soul?
3 - what are you before birth?
4 - what are you after death?
5 - what are you after that?
6 - what are the many ways by which all of us, through all of time are connected to one another?
Don't let yourself be constrained by the limits of your chosen genre.
When you dream that your daughter is a mother and you a grandmother, write down what you see and what that feels like, and see where such a scene takes you.
Let your characters tell you which way your story shuld go. And one of those characters is the image of yourself that you have created and who now has a life and a will of her own.
Fiction is not just for entertainment. It's also for survival of the species.
Each of us has the potential for living many different kinds of lives, with many different personalities.
When a group faces a crisis, individuals take on roles that are necessary for the survival of the group, with previously hidden potential coming to the fore. This happens naturally, like water finding its own level.
In reading and writing stories, we exercise multiple potential lives, and vicariously acquire experience and insight, which could, in crisis, prove important.
We binge watch. Why not binge read?
When you change the context of writing, you change its meaning.
To binge watch a TV series is to experience a series of episodes as if they were a single work, to enjoy them in a new way.
In the old days, the only choice for watching series was broadcast television. Typically, 22 episodes constituted a season, and the episodes were broadcast one per week, with the time slots for the rest of the year being reruns. It was a stop-start experience, often with cliff-hanger stories to encourage viewers to come back next week or next year.
The advent of video recorders changed that experience. You could save episodes and watch them whenever your wanted or in a bunch. You could rent or buy. You were no longer constrained by the schedule of the network or local station. You could fast-forward past commercials. You could pause. You could rewind and rewatch. You were in control.
Then came cable with video on demand and DVRs, giving you similar control even more conveniently. Programming to record what you wanted when you wanted was far easier.
Now with streaming, you don't have to plan ahead. You can at any moment decide to binge on a series and watch one episode after another, from the first episode of the series through the last one, without commercials. Watching in that mode, with only the interruptions you want, you can get deeply involved in the story and identify with the characters, and see the actors growing up and aging − like time-laps photography, watching grass grow or a flower bloom, where what normally takes days or months or years unfolds for you fast enough for you to perceive and enjoy the spectacle of change. Or you can choose to watch in stop-start mode, with breaks as long as you want, to suit your personal schedule and lifestyle.
I'm watching the same content I saw before or could have seen before as separate episodes. But seen together, an entire series is a different genre, a different way of telling stories and enjoying them.
My favorite instance of this is Newsroom by Aaron Sorkin, which originally aired on Showtime from 2012 to 2014, twenty-five episodes spread across three seasons. Viewed in its entirety, it has a beginning, middle, and end. While each episode is satisfying in and of itself, the series as a whole is a single work of art, deliberately written to be experienced that way.
Typically, graduate students in literature read in a similar way. In preparing for orals they are responsible for reading the complete works of a set of authors. Rarely do they get the opportunity to focus on one author at a time. But they do often come to think of an author's life's work as a single work. Today, when E-books are readily available and the classics are free, or nearly free, many more people have the opportunity to have such experiences.
I'm getting warmed up to write an historical novel set in the time of Shakespeare. So I decided to binge read his complete works, one play every day or two. That's 38 plays, written over the course of about 19 years. I'm a third of the way through now, and it has been a surprisingly delightful experience, prompting me to want to do the same with other authors, and also prompting me to rethink what I write and why.
I'm reading the Shakespeare plays aloud to get a feel for the rhythm. As I become familiar with the vocabulary and the syntax I don't have to go running to the footnotes all the time. His langugage begins to feel normal rather than alien as I become familiar with stock phrases and images and allusions, as well as the range of reactions of characters experiencing love, jealousy, hate, vengeance, temptation, ambition. What they are willing to do. What they are willing to die for. What they are willing to kill for.
The histories, in particular. make much more sense read together. The complexities of genealogy and royal succession fall into the background as you become familiar with them, freeing you to focus on the characters and the spectacle and the pageant. Imagine watching the player introductions at an all-star baseball game when you know nothing about baseball, or watching the red-carpet arrivals of celebrities at the Oscars when you've never heard of the celebrities. Shakespeare's audience knew these historical figures, knew about their tangled relationships, and the ins and outs of royal succession − at least knew enough about them to recognize them as celebrities and to enjoy seeing how they were portrayed. To them there was no more surprise in what happened in the plays of Henry VI than there is in watching a Christmas pageant at your church, with the stable, the manger, the shepherds, and the wise men. And there's pageant − portraying what is well known and expected, with pomp and glitter and fine words − in many other plays as well.
Now I'm tempted to binge read the complete works of other authors − of course the ones like Balzac and Zola who deliberately set out to tell multi-volume stories, but others as well, light weight as well as heavy weight − Faulkner, Michener, Somerset Maugham's stories, The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency: sets of books that gain from being read together, one after the other.
This experience also makes me think differently about what I write and why I write.
If I am driven by what I need to write rather than what an editor wants or what I guess the market wants, then, by nature rather than by plan, the pieces will fit together and form a coherent story. And, for me, the main purpose of writing is to discover that story and tell it.
One of my favorite poems is "In Just-spring " by e. e. cummings, which ends:
High-school textbook footnotes connect "goat-footed" with Pan, a god in Greek mythology. But for so spontaneous and natural a poem, that feels like a stretch.
Having recently seen Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris, I read books about Americans in Paris in the 1920s, and books by Ernest Hemingway, and I was surprised to learn that e. e. cummings was in Paris when Hemingway was there; and in A Moveable Feast I stumbled on the following evocation of spring:
"In the spring mornings I would work early while my wife still slept. The windows were open wide and the cobbles of the street were drying after the rain. The sun was drying the wet faces of the houses that faced the window. The shops were all shuttered. The goat-herd came up the street blowing his pipes and a woman who lived on the floor above us came out onto the sidewalk with a big pot. The goat-herd chose one of the heavy-bagged, black milk-goats and milked her into the pot while his dog pushed the others onto the sidewalk. The goats looked around, turning their necks like sight-seers. The goat-herd took the money from the woman and thanked her and went on up the street piping, and the dog herded the goats on ahead, their horns bobbing. I went back to writing and the woman came up the stairs with the goat milk. She wore her felt-soled cleaning shoes and I only heard her breathing as she stopped on the stairs outside our door and the shutting of her door. She was the only customer for goat milk in our building."
Both the poem and the Hemingway passage are evocations of
spring. And, by chance, both Hemingway and cummings were in
Paris at the same time.
So rereading the cummings poem with the Hemingway in mind gives
the words of
the poem new connotations, makes it more tactile and fresh.
I don't know what cummings was thinking when he wrote it. But thinking of the Hemingway passage when reading the poem helps me enjoy it more.
There's a plus as well as a minus to the reading habits of the young today. Tim, my youngest, has for more than ten years been into fanfiction. Those are stories written by ordinary fans based on well-known stories and characters from TV, movies, and videogames. There are hundreds of thousands if not millions of fanfics that you can read for free on the Internet. Many are book length. The authors have no intention of ever being paid for this work. They write for the social-sharing high of finding an appreciative audience, no matter how small.
For about half a dozen years, Tim, while in junior high and high school, read such stories the bad as well as the good, for long hours. He's a fast reader polishing off a typical Harry Potter book in less than a day. He would email the authors with comments and suggestions for improvements; and for the best fanfics, he would ask permission to post the stories at his own site, and then would work with the authors to make copy-editing improvements.
Meanwhile, with the rise of ebooks, far more books are being written and published than ever before, though many of them get very few readers if any at all. It costs nothing to publish an ebook in the Amazon Kindle store. There are millions of books available there, and I believe that the vast majority of those have probably been written and published in the last five years.
In other words, a lot more people are writing and reading than ever before. Many who read online for several hours every day have never read and never heard of the greatest books that were ever written. But when such people acquire a taste for the classics, they can get immediate access to them at very little cost.
As a publisher of public domain classic ebooks, my best seller list might surprise you Gibbon's Rome, the 20-volume Babylonian Talmud, the complete works of Mark Twain, each selling for just 99 cents.
I've been amazed at how closely some of the fans of classic books read. I got dozens of complaints that my edition of Gibbon didn't include the Greek spelling of Greek words in the footnotes. And I got a complaint that my edition of Jane Eyre was missing one word in the penultimate chapter. Spell check can't detect what's missing, nor could any proofreader). Some of my most loyal customers are blind and use technology to convert the text to voice. (One of those is a spelunker, exploring caves on her weekends
I see no reason to despair. Quite the contrary.
The cultural climate is chaotic. Schools no longer drill the western canon into students, as Harold Bloom decries in his book of that title. That makes it difficult to build on and to pass on to future generations a rich literary context for allusion and enjoyment and understanding. But thanks to the Internet, I see broad-based enthusiasm for story such as the world has never seen before.
Good things are happening and will happen. The glass is seven-eighths full. Rejoice! Write those novels and poems that have been festering in the back of your mind. Pull the unfinished ones out of dusty drawers and finish them. Don't worry about convincing traditional publishers to publish them. Publish them as ebooks or post them on a website of your own. Or go to Kindle or to PublishDrive and offer them as ebooks. Encourage friends and colleagues to read and spread the word. You won't get rich, but you might find a few good readers. And what more could any writer ever hope for?
When Harold Bloom in The Western Canon detailed his selection of the best books of all time, he wrote with love for the works themselves and with sorrow that they are no longer getting the attention they deserve. His act of defining the canon was a rearguard action. The battle was lost. He was in full retreat.
That sorrow resonates with me in several ways.
One of the main purposes of my fiction writing has been to try to take part in the dialogue across the centuries that the canon represents. I wanted to be someone inspired by the past and involved in the present, and someone who would be read and who would inspire others in the future.
No such luck. I've always been a spectator on the sidelines, cheering the team on, but having no effect on the present, much less the future.
So now I write and brainstorm and speculate and converse simply for the pleasure of it. I try to sort out what matters to me and why, and what sense it might make, with no expectation that anyone else will care; but because it matters to me, because I'd like to learn to ask better questions, even if I can't find answers.
My amateur status let's me see connections where an expert would see only differences. And when, in my ignorance, pieces seem to fit together in unexpected ways, I get a manic high that feels great. I guess I'm addicted to the process of trying to make sense of life.
Yes, like Harold Bloom, I'm sorry that schools have lost the concept of a literary canon; and I lament the end of the two-and-a-half-millennium cultural dialogue that the canon represents. But on the other hand, I'm encouraged by all the writing and reading that is happening outside of schools, and the growth of a global audience now has easy access to many works that previously were hard-to-find and expensive.
The Internet is having an effect on the world of literature like the fall of Constantinople had in triggering the Renaissance. Works that had been locked away are being spread worldwide, and are being read voraciously by people who have no sense of a previously established canon. They are reading and enjoying and establishing their own sense of what they should value and what they want to share with friends and pass on to future generations.
I tend to be a literary anarchist. I have faith that if books are readily available, people will read them and will tell friends about the ones that matter most to them. I believe that it can be good that there is no institutionalized canon.
In the Starcraft game series, the Zerg are one of the races struggling for dominance. While there are many Zerg, they act together, more or less, as a single entity, a single horde or hive. When they capture an opponent, they assimilate him or her, acquiring new strength, new powers, new perceptions.
Reading books is a bit like that assimilation.
I've been keeping lists of the books I read and finish since 1958, when I was in the seventh grade. In those 62 years, I've read over 3700 books. I'd like to believe that I have grown through the process, that thoughts and emotions of authors whose works I have read have become part of me and enriched me.
This feels like a variation on Auden's line in memory of Yeats, "The words of a dead man are modified in the guts of the living." Auden meant it ironically. He was writing from the perspective of the poet who on death "became his admirers," ceased being himself. I'm thinking of that same phenomenon from the perspective of the reader. In that sense, as the words of dead men are modified in my guts, they become part of me; they nourish me; they give me strength.
In 1944, my Dad was a private in the US Army, stationed in Georgia a bugle boy waiting to be shipped to the war in Europe.
The day before he was due to leave, he received orders for Officer Candidate School. It turned out that his company was sent to the Battle of the Bulge. He heard that they were all captured, without casualties, and that the train taking them to prison camp was bombed by the Allies, and then there was only one casualty the bugle boy, the man who replaced him, died.
Some might see that as chance. But to Dad, he owed his life that to other bugle boy. He had an obligation to pay it back, to live a life that mattered.
Dad was given a life and also given a belief that he had a personal destiny.
And at every decision point in his life, in the back of his head was the image of that bugle boy who had taken his place, a humbling sense of responsibility, a debt owed.
I'm reminded of the final scene in the movie Saving Private Ryan, at Arlington National Cemetery, long after World War II. The man who was saved is standing with his children and his grandchildren. Not a word is said. But you get the sense that the man's whole life was predicated on that sacrifice and that debt.
Fifty years after the war, when Dad had retired as a superintendent of schools and a colonel in the Army Reserves, he connected over the Internet with a group of veterans from his old company that got captured in the Battle of the Bulge. He learned that the bugle boy didn't die, and he got in touch with him by email and they shared life experiences.
Then a year later, the officer who took command of that company soon after Dad left for OCS and before the Bulge chanced upon Dad's autobiography on my web site and emailed him a detailed account of what had actually happened. In fact, more than half the men in the company died in the battle.
There was the story that gave Dad a sense of debt and destiny; and there are the facts, which were very different.
The story Dad believed for so long mattered more than the facts, giving shape and meaning to his life − that was a rare gift and far more important than mere facts.
(from my fantasy The Lizard of Oz, in which an elementary school class on a field trip goes to the Underworld. You need to stand under the world to understand it. There are many levels of understanding.)
As soon as the class got ashore in the Underworld, Kathy said, "Why I've never seen such pretty clothes in all my life. Could you please teach me how to make clothes like that?"
One of the three old ladies who were spinning and sewing said, "As a mother of fact, that could be very difficult."
Mr. Carroll introduced them, "These are the Mothers of Fact: Miss Hap, Miss Fortune, and Miss Take."
Kathy said "I'd like to learn to sew like that?"
"Sew what?" asked Miss Fortune.
"Sew pretty clothes like you're making."
"Those are very special clothes. They're costumes for our spring fete."
"Fate? What's a fate?" asked Kathy.
"Oh, that's a party. The way we do it, it's a masquerade party, and everybody wears pretty costumes and acts out silly parts. Our job is to make the costumes."
"Can I help? Please? Pretty please?" Kathy pleaded.
"Well, I'm afraid it's probably beyond you; but if you want to try, here's a needle and thread."
"But what can I use for cloth?"
"Use the fabric of time," answered Miss Fortune. "That's what we use."
"Once you get into it, it's really quite simple, nine times easier than regular sewing − just a stitch in time."
Kathy felt silly sitting there with a needle and thread and no cloth; but she would have felt even sillier to ask again; so she just pretended she was sewing. The other kids gathered round her and stared.
"What are you doing, Kathy?" asked Mark.
"I'm sewing, silly. Can't you see?" she answered.
"But you don't have any cloth. How can you sew without any cloth?" he asked again.
"I'm just stitching time," she said.
Miss Fortune confirmed, "Yes, and she's doing a fine job of it. She'll soon have it all sewed up."
Miss Hap added, "Why that's lovely, perfectly lovely. Why that's finer than anything we've ever made. That's a very special costume. Fit for a king."
"For an emperor," said Miss Fortune. "That'll be the emperor's new clothes."
Kathy wasn't sure whether they were just being nice, or if they were making fun
of her, or if they meant something she didn't understand.
Donny said, "You mean emperors don't wear anything at all, not even underwear?"
Kathy giggled and whispered to Gaynell; and Gaynell giggled and whispered to Kathy.
But Miss Fortune said "There's a very special fiber for making it visible. Yes, moral fiber. The emperor has to supply that himself. It's really indecent for an emperor to go around with no moral fiber."
Mark asked, "What's moral fiber?"
"Cotton grows on some plants; wool grows on some animals; and moral fiber grows on some people. They're a rare breed."
"I'd like to buy some moral fiber," said Kathy.
"Well, you don't see plants buying cotton or animals buying wool, do you? They've got to grow it themselves. Well, people can't buy moral fiber either. They've got to grow it. It grows on you. Till you're all grown up."
Mark said, "Well, Miss Osborne's a grownup. She must have some."
Everybody looked at Miss Osborne, and she blushed.
Donny said, "I don't see anything."
Miss Osborne blushed some more.
But Miss Fortune explained, "Just give her time, and it'll show. Yes, matched with the right time, moral fiber can be quite beautiful − bright red and blue and green. Really very becoming. Becoming even more beautiful."
Freud gave the Oedipus story universal significance as a model for the Oepidus complex, a child's unconscious desire for the opposite-sex parent and hate for the same-sex parent. Jung similarly adopted the Electra story as the model for the Electra complex, a girl's with her mother for her father. So ancient Greek myths took on meaning in modern times that had nothing to do with their origin.
In stories about the kings of Mycenae and Sparta and about the kings of Thebes, tension arises between two principles of succession. These principles are never explicitly stated in the related works of literature − the Iliad, the Oresteia, Electra, and the Oedipus plays − but they can be extrapolated from the central conflicts.
Sometimes the throne passes from father to son on the death of the father. But often it passes instead to next husband of the queen on the death of the king or to whoever marries the eldest daughter of the king, immediately upon the marriage. Often a reigning king deliberately delays or tries to prevent the marriage of his oldest daughter.
For example, Oenomaus, king of Pisa, sets up a chariot race between himself and any suitor for the hand of his daughter Hippodamia, with death the penalty for defeat. He kills 18 suitors that way before being defeated by Pelops, who immediately succeeds to the throne. That chariot race was the legendary origin of the Olympic Games. In some variants of this story, Oenomaus wanted his daughter for himself, which by this rule of succession would have solidified his claim to the throne, with no concern about incest, which was no issue for the gods as well.
Similarly, many suitors gather to contend for the hand of Helen, daughter of Tyndareus, king of Sparta. Yes, she was reputed to be beautiful, but she also was the symbol of right to rule Sparta. When she marries Menelaus, Menelaus immediately becomes king, even though the previous king is still alive and well. And when Paris prince of Troy kidnaps/elopes with/runs off with Helen, the matter is treated not just as an instance of adultery. Rather it is a matter of state, precipitating war between Troy and all the Greek states ruled by Helen's former suitors. Apparently, if she is the symbol of power, loss of her puts at doubt the legitimacy of Menelaus' reign.
When Agamemnon assembles an army to help his brother Menelaus recover his wife and hence his authority, he has to first deal with the legitimacy of his own reign. He inherited the throne of Mycenae from his father Atreus. But now he has a marriageable daughter, Iphigenia, who could be considered the symbol of authority. If Iphigenia should marry, her husband would have a claim to the throne. So Agamemnon announces that his is giving her to Achilles, his most likely rival, which would be tantamount to abdicating. But instead he sacrifices her, eliminating that threat to his authority.
In variants of that story, Iphigenia is saved by the gods at the last minute and transported to the distant land of Tauris, where she serves as a virgin priestess. Either way, she is no longer marriageable, and Agamemnon's right to rule is not at question.
While Agamemnon is away, his wife, Clytemnestra, sister of Helen, takes Aegisthus, cousin of Agamemnon, as a lover. On Agamemnon's return, they murder him, and Aegisthus, marrying Clytemnestra becomes king. Years later, Orestes and Electra, children of Agamemnon and Clytemnestra kill their mother and her lover. Eventually, after killing the son of Aegisthus, Orestes becomes king of Mycenae, which can be seen as him asserting his right of succession, as son of Agamemnon.
Orestes also marries his cousin Hermione, daughter of Menelaus and Helen and hence becomes king of Sparta, though Menelaus is still alive. That can be seen as succession by marriage to the king's daughter.
In Thebes, when King Laius dies, his widow Jocasta becomes the symbol of power. Oedipus, apparently an indigent stranger, wins her hand by solving the riddle of the Sphinx and hence become king. But, as it turns out, there is ambiguity in his right to rule, since he unwittingly killed the old king who was his father, and he is the heir to the throne by inheritance as well as by marriage to his mother.
When Oedipus and Jocasta die, their sons, Polynices and Eteocles, share rule until war breaks out between them and they kill one another (Seven Against Thebes). Then Antigone, as the eldest daughter of Oedipus, becomes the key figure in determining legitimacy.
Creon, brother of Jocasta, seizes the throne, but by the marriage-based rule of succession, Antigone is a threat to him. She is engaged to Creon's son Haemon, and by the rule − but not explicitly stated in the play Antigone − Haemon would become king if and when he married her. Heamon and Creon come into conflict. Haemon nearly kills his father but instead kills himself. Antigone does not marry, leaving Creon to reign.
You would expect writers in the patrilinear Periclean age to distort the old stories to conform to patrilinear succession. Instead, they scrupulously preserved the tension between succession by the son and succession by marriage to the daughter or wife, which puts women and love and jealousy at center stage, together with greed and lust for power.
While these stories seem to have originated as examples of legal issues related to the right of succession, they were perpetuated because of their dramatic potential, rich with complex conflicts and ambivalent relationships. No wonder authors have returned to them for inspiration again and again for three thousand years. And no wonder Freud and Jung found them useful in describing what they concluded from their experience in dealing with 20th century psychiatric patients.
In the medieval period, in common belief, the seasons changed and people grew up and aged, but human nature and the nature of the universe were immutable. Man and heaven and earth were all connected to one another and to God. And every man derived meaning from that order. Dante, Chaucer, Aquinas.
In the Renaissance, as advances in science revealed mechanical laws governing the physical world, the spotlight shifted to man himself. God didn't go away. Rather He was put in parenthesis. Man's physical body and his reasoning ability became the focus of learned attention, the source of man's dignity and meaning. Da Vinci, Shakespeare, Descartes.
Greater attention led to greater knowledge and understanding of the workings of the human body and mind. The spotlight then shifted, in the Romantic period, to the realm of non-rational thinking − intuition, emotion, poetic sensitivity to Nature. Wordsworth, Coleridge.
Advances in science then made Nature seem less mystical, less fraught with meaning, and the spotlight of great literature, philosophy, and science moved to the unconscious, the subconscious, the irrational. Dostoyevsky, Conrad.
As psychology revealed that the unconscious/subconscious of the individual was governed by mechanical rules, the focus shifted away from man as an individual, to entire cultures and to human consciousness as a whole. Joyce, T. S. Eliot, Frazer, Jung, Faulkner.
As science and philosophy came to the conclusion that the viewer is part of the physical system, that there are limits to what human consciousness can ever understand, the spotlight moved again. Literary works celebrated characters who willfully and heroically distorted their own perception of the world. Beckett, Sartre in Nausee, Camus in L'Etranger, Kesey in Cuckoo's Nest, Ginsberg in Sunflower Sutra.
That period abruptly came to an end as it became clear that drugs could mechanically produce the same effects.
Over the last sixty years, we have seen numerous serious works that hint at a realm of order and understanding lurking behind the everyday mechanical world. We see that in Pyncheon, Eco, Borges, Lem, Stoppard, Neal Stephenson. Sometimes that order echoes the order of the medieval period, suggesting that there really is a cosmic order that connects everyone and everything, but thay is beyond our understanding.
I suspect that a similar faith in an undefined cosmic order underlies many of these Lenses.
A friend of mine bemoans the invention of GPS. Relying on GPS, people lose their sense of direction and their ability to use maps. He sees that as an impoverishment of our spatial awareness. He also bemoans the availability of the information resources of the Internet, because people don't remember facts when they can easily look them up. He hearkens back to what was lost culturally with the invention of the printing press, and the decline in the ability to memorize with the invention of writing. He sees it as a moral failing to take the easy path made possible by advances technology.
My view is that we are programmed to take advantage of every opportunity to do more with less, to not waste effort or memory space unnecessarily, to follow the path of least resistance, like water flowing down a hill. When an easier way to do something becomes available, we have a strong inclination to adapt to it and forget the old way, and that inclination has repeatedly been important for the survival and advancement of mankind.
Admittedly, our increasing dependence on technology puts us at risk if and when the electrical and electronic underpinnings of modern civilization vanish (through such disasters as solar flares or nuclear war). But if and when that happens, we'll adjust again to the new reality and relearn what we need to relearn. And in the meantime, we'll advance far more quickly both as individuals and as a society, by supplementing our natural abilities with the use of technological innovations.
Since the 1970s the performance of computer chips has been doubing every 18-24 months. That means that in two years you will probably be able to buy a computer with the same power for half the price, or buy a computer with twice the power for the same price. This predictable progress has been driving economic growth, increases in productivity, and social change.
The predictability is due in large part to the relationship of the physical size of a circuit and its speed. Electricity moves at the speed of light, which, as computer pioneer Grace Hopper often pointed out, means that it travels about a foot every nanosecond, a billionth of a second. If you cut the size of a circuit in half, you double its speed and hence its performance, without the need for any other innovation.
In the past, the use of ever faster, more powerful computers in the design and manufacturing of computers has tiime after time made it possible to make the next generation of still faster and more powerful computers.
The pace appears to be slowing as technology reaches physical limits. But major innovations, like quantum computing, might keep the trend going for another decade or more.
So what is the curse? We have experienced more than 40 years of incredible progress in technology. As individuals, we have become used to the consumer electronics products we buy becoming obsolete quickly. Rather than fix a broken device, we buy a new more powerful replacement. We take such progress for granted. And the economy as a whole depends on it for ever increasing productivity and ever lower costs for technology products. When this progress comes to an abrupt halt, the repercussions are likely to be disastrous.
A book as artifact has value like an antique has value, based on its rarity.
A book as content has value only for the words and what they mean.
Thanks to ebooks, book-as-artifact has been severed from book-as-content. Book-as-artifact will be valued forever, increase astronomically in value as they become more rare. Ebooks have no rarity. If one copy exists, millions of copies can be created instantaneously and distributed around the globe at little or no cost.
Many of the books I now republish used to be rare books. Now they will be readily available forever, barring the possibility of another Dark Ages, eliminating the technology that we now take for granted. Book burnings, a la Hitler and Savonarola, are no longer possible in this electronic environment.
When The Iliad and The Odyssey were first written down, works that had once existed only in mind and memory, and that few knew in their entirety and shared with others by recitation became generally available. It was tedious and expensive to make copies, but it could be done. The artifact nature of written books made it possible for books to be passed on from generation to generation, independent of faulty human memory. Of course, those artifact books were subject to wear and destruction. But there were always people who placed high enough value on the best to make fresh copies or to pay others to do so. Of course, there were mistakes in judgment and there were natural disasters and human disasters, but many books survived for hundreds of years.
Electronic books free the content from the artifact like it was before books were written down. The book resides in memory once again, only the memory is electronic instead of human and mortal. Today, the content of all the literature of the entire human race can fit on a backup disk drive you can connect to your PC, and soon, with the predictble doubling of computer power, all of literature will fit on a flash drive, and then on a gadget as small as an earring, and then will be available to all devices everywhere instantaneously from cloud storage.
When Michael Hart founded the Gutenberg Project to make public domain books available for free to everone, he compared the invention of ebooks to the invention of the printing press. But the change was even more revolutionary than that. It was comparable to the invention of writing.
We are bombarded daily with news of hacking, identity theft, and scams. We see our nation becoming ever more divided as people ignore non-partisan balanced reporting of news and instead focus on the web sites and cable channels that agree with their pre-set biases. The communities of common interest that the Internet made possible have become havens for bias and bigotry and closed minedness.
Innovations developed for one purpose often end up serving the opposite. Fire can warm and cook, and it can also burn.
Misuse of the Internet should not blind us to the Internet's potential.
We are shaped by our environment, and the Internet and related social meda constitute a new environment shaping everyone from toddlers to retirees, enabling new behavior, new ways to learn, and new ways for people to interrelate.
The human potential for the exercise of mass destruction existed before the invention of the weapons that made it possible. The potential for people to submerge their identity and their individual reason in large-scale crowd hysteria existed before the invention of mass communication media.
But now, thanks to the Internet, we are learning that man also has the potential for large-scale reasoned discourse. Thousands or even millions of people can arrive at mutual understanding through dialogue. Ideas can be spread instantaneously in global forums where they can compete on the basis of their merit, and people around the world can work together on large-scale projects, just as they can play massively interactive videogames. In other words, the Internet reveals positive aspects of human nature that were never seen before.
Before the Internet, large numbers of people could work together only when regimented, disciplined, and controlled by a central authority. Without such control, large groups of people were dangerous and volatile, sometimes turning into irrational mobs. And mass communication − communication from one to many − could induce crowd hysteria at a distance, and one person's nightmare could be projected onto many.
By enabling many to communicate with many, directly, without central control, the Internet reveals unexpected human potential for collaboration and community.
There's always a good old days. The past is always simpler than the present, because we know so little about it. We remember the threads of consequence, the events that shaped the world as we know it today. The other stories become mere anecdotes, curious unimportant details. And we have no way to reconstruct the branching paths of possibility that gave context and meaning to the circumstances in which events unfolded. Contemporary daily newspapers hint at the degree to which, in the moment, people were unaware of what the outcomes would be and how future generations would view or totally ignore the events of that day.
In the present, we are inundated by everything that is possible − an infinite number of possibilities. When we consider the past, the choices and the challenges seem so much easier to deal with, not because they were, but because of our ignorance of what was at stake then.
The ancient Greeks also had their good old days. They talked of the Golden Age, which came before the Silver Age. And, to them, their present time − the time of Pericles and Socrates and Plato and Sophocles and Euripides and Herodotus − was the Iron Age, a time of decay.
Many people presume that today the pace of change is ever-increasing, making it ever more stressful for us to adapt. But, in fact, the changes we experience today are fine-tuning − adding functions to a smart phone, watching TV shows and movies streaming over the Internet instead of broadcast or on DVDs. In contrast, the changes that occurred in the 19th and early 20th centuries were fundamental and disruptive. The Pony Express lasted just 18 months and then was made obsolete by the transcontinental railway. Locomotives, steam ships, automobiles, electric lights, telegraph, telephone, radio, photography, sound recording, movies: an explosion of inventions radically changed everyday life.
George Washington was good at trigonometry in school, so he got a job as a surveyor and was hired to survey frontier land. Then because he was familiar with that frontier land, General Braddock gave him the rank of Colonel in the British Army and relied on him to lead the way to Fort Pitt, where they were ambushed and defeated by the French and Indians.
Then when the Revoluton began, the Continental Congress turned to Washington, with his military experience and his lofty rank of Colonel, and made him Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.
With his unique style of command, Washington won the war, despite losing every battle but his last.
You could argue that if Washington hadn't done so well in trigonometry, we might have lost the Revolution.
I didn't just read this book, I typed it − all 1317 pages of it.
I love fresh views of historical events written by people who lived at that time, as opposed to works written long after, in which the selection of events and their presentation are flavored by what happened later − history written backwards, focusing on what caused the events and the consequences that followed − teleological history where the importance of an event depends on its relationship to a world view held much later.
I had read about Mercy Warren years ago when I wrote a play about her and General Burgoyne. But I had never read her history of the American Revolution. The length was daunting, and the only available edition of it − a photographic facsimile of the 1805 edition that I found in the Boston Public Library − was very difficult to read. The old style typography − s looked like f − combined with the out-dated spelling and punctuation − sentences that ran on line after line − were hard on the eyes. I could force myself to decipher a paragraph or so, but then my mind would wander. Typing it would force me to concentrate and pay attention to every word.
Why should I want to pay such close attention? Here was a little-known first-hand account of the American Revolution, the events leading up to it, and the circumstances that followed it. This was an important work that could impact our image of our nation's origins and destiny. I wanted to make it available to all, in readable understandable form. And thanks to the Internet, it wouldn't take years or money or the enthusiastic support of a well-established publishing company for me to do so. All I needed to do was type it − modernizing the typography and punctuation, and editing for readability − and I could make it freely available to everyone through my Web site.
The author was a woman, writing at a time when it was unheard of for women to write history books. Yes, her style was pompous, mimicking the rhythms of Burke's speeches and Gibbon's history of Rome, as if that were the standard for serious history; and, like Alexander Pope, making generalizations about the nature of man and war and politics, rather than providing all the raw data and first-hand observations on which she based those conclusions. But her personal voice comes through, becoming louder and clearer toward the end of the war, and virtually screaming in the volume after that where she expresses her concern for the future of the young republic, daring to criticize Washington's dependence on his military cronies in his two administrations, and harshly accusing her life-long friend, John Adams, of having lost faith in democracy and favoring monarchy. She wrote those words in 1801, just after the end of his term as president. She wrote those words with the passion of fear − the fear of possible civil war because the divide was becoming so great between those who believed in the principles of equality clearly stated in the Declaration of Independence, and those who had a nostalgic reverence and desire for the aristocratic style, titles, and pomp of European courts. She foresaw, with dread, the special status of the super-rich two hundred years later.
In her day, the primary political divide was between those who, like herself, believed in the Republic as a moral, even a religious necessity, and those who saw it as a temporary expedient. To Mercy, the American experiment in democracy of the people, for the people, and by the people was a beacon to the world, the shining example that could lead all peoples to free themselves from the tyranny that kept the many in misery, poverty, and slavery.
Men like Adams responded to the French Revolution with fear and loathing, and from that blood-fest concluded that democracy was flawed, that it was at best a temporary solution. Mercy cites with disdain and disappointment his book Defense of Their Constitutions which "drew a doleful picture of the confusion and dissolution of all republics." She did not mention the undeclared war which Adams had waged on the seas against republican France. She did not mention his Alien and Sedition Acts which revoked much of the Bill of Rights, purportedly for public safety (in a political atmosphere resembling that of the McCarthy era 150 years later). Rather, she focused on what was to her more important and more insidious − his love affair with monarchy. It was as if he had taken a mistress − monarchy/aristocracy − while still ostensibly sleeping with his wife − republicanism/democracy.
She admitted that Adams was not alone in this betrayal: "It is true the revolution in France had not ultimately tended to strengthen the principles of republicanism in America. The confusions introduced into that unhappy nation by their resistance to despotism and the consequent horrors that spread dismay over every portion of their territory have startled some in the United States, who do not distinguish between principles and events, and shaken the firmness of others, who have fallen off from their primary object and by degrees returned back to their former adherence to monarchy. Thus, through real or pretended fears of similar results, from the freedom of opinion disseminated through the United States, dissensions have originated relative to subjects not known in the Constitution of the American Republic. This admits no titles of honor or nobility, those powerful springs of human action; and from the rage of acquisition which has spread far and wide, it may be apprehended that the possession of wealth will in a short time be the only distinction in this young country. By this it may be feared that the spirit of avarice will be rendered justifiable in the opinion of some as the single road to superiority."
She was reluctant to attack her old friend, but she felt that it was her moral duty to do so − not just to set the record straight, but to alert the young Republic of the danger and to help nudge it in the right direction, so it would have a chance to survive, to grow, and to thrive in a world dominated by monarchs and dictators.
"The veracity of an historian requires that all those who have been distinguished, either by their abilities or their elevated rank, should be exhibited through every period of public life with impartiality and truth. But the heart of the annalist may sometimes be hurt by political deviations which the pen of the historian is obliged to record.
"Mr. Adams was undoubtedly a statesman of penetration and ability; but his prejudices and his passions were sometimes too strong for his sagacity and judgment."
She blamed his 4-5 year sojourn in England, as a diplomat, after the Revolution, for having led to this anti-democratic change in his convictions: "...unfortunately for himself and his country, he became so enamored of the British Constitution and the government, manners, and laws of the nation, that a partiality for monarchy appeared, which was inconsistent with his former professions of republicanism....
"After Mr. Adams's return from England, he was implicated by a large portion of his countrymen as having relinquished the republican system and forgotten the principles of the American Revolution, which he had advocated for near 20 years."
Ironically, despite her faith in republicanism, when Mercy waxed religious and invoked the name of God, she used paternalistic and monarchic images like the kingdom of Christ. Perhaps that's merely because of the familiarity of such King James' diction. But perhaps, too, she had not yet worked out if and how God's kingdom could in any way be republican.
Mercy wrote early drafts of this monumental work near the time when the events unfolded, and completed it about four years before its appeared in 1805. She explained the delay as due to health problems, temporary bouts of blindness, and grief at the death of her son.
She wrote in the third person, trying to avoid personal bias, while advocating the republicanism she so ardently believed in. She didn't spare friends like John Adams, or acquaintances like John Hancock, or public idols like George Washington. She called it as she saw it, shot by shot − good and bad, not expecting people to be consistent and predictable. She treated her immediate family with that same impartiality: her brother James Otis an early advocate of the rights of the colonies, her husband James Warren speaker of the Massachusetts House of Representatives during the Revolution, and her son Winslow Warren the would-be diplomat. The early chapters provide interesting details on the steps leading up to the Revolution, particularly the events happening in Boston, near her home in Plymouth.
She also, in Chapter 6, told the little-known tale of the British emancipation of slaves in the South. In 1775, Lord Dunmore, governor of Virginia, freed the slaves in his colony and armed them, as a way to intimidate the colonial rebels.
"He [Dunmore] had the inhumanity early to intimate his designs if opposition ran high to declare freedom to the blacks, and, on any appearance of hostile resistance to the King's authority to arm them against their masters. Neither the House of Burgesses nor the people at large were disposed to recede from their determinations in consequence of his threats nor to submit to any authority that demanded implicit obedience on pain of devastation and ruin. Irritated by opposition, too rash for consideration, too haughty for condescension, and fond of distinguishing himself in support of the parliamentary system, Lord Dunmore dismantled the fort in Williamsburg, plundered the magazines, threatened to lay the city in ashes and depopulate the country: As far as he was able, he executed his nefarious purposes.
"When his lordship found the resolution of the House of Burgesses, the committees and conventions was nowhere to be shaken, he immediately proclaimed the emancipation of the blacks and put arms into their hands. He excited disturbances in the back settlements and encouraged the natives bordering on the southern colonies to rush from the wilderness and make inroads on the frontiers."
Much of the military action, including the occupation and then the evacuation of Boston by British troops, took place before the Declaration of Independence.
In Chapter 7, she painted an interesting picture of Washington's genius during these early days. He arrived in Boston in the summer of 1775, after the Battle of Bunker Hill, to take charge of the rag-tag army of rebels that had assembled. The Continental Congress had not yet decided what it wanted to do, whether they might still be reconciled with England should the right terms be offered. But they needed to organize some kind of defense. So before deciding on independence, they decided on a commander-in-chief of their army. Yes, the rebel force was small and untrained, facing British veterans. But worst of all, Washington, much to his surprise, discovered that he had almost no gunpowder, with just three rounds per soldier. He kept that deficiency a secret and, with amazing cool, deployed his troops building fortifications on the hills around British-occupied Boston and generally acted as if he had all the ammunition he might ever want. If the British had realized the rebels were so ill-supplied, they could have wiped out the colonists with the greatest of ease.
How did he build up his supplies? The local farmers had a little gunpowder to spare, and the southern colonies eventually sent along a little more. The locals did their best to tool up to produce gunpowder locally, but that took time. What made a real difference was the Continental Congress empowering pirates − privateers − to prey on British shipping and thereby capture whatever military supplies they could. And that was a year before the Declaration of Independence.
Better known, but still often forgotten, the New York militia under General Montgomery unsuccessfully invaded Canada in the fall and winter of 1775 − once again long before the Declaration of Independence. And, in conjunction with that invasion, Benedict Arnold led a thousand troops from the Continental Army near Boston overland, in a heroic and almost impossible march through previously unexplored, mountainous forest to meet up with Montgomery outside Quebec.
Mercy also painted an interesting portrait of General Burgoyne. He marched south from Canada into northern New York in 1777, with arrogance and confidence, having boasted that he could crush this little rebellion with just a handful of troops. Now with a large army of seasoned veterans in his command, he expected the rebels to cower and run at the mere rumor of his approach. As part of his plan of terror, he brought with him and set loose on the American settlements in his wake, large numbers of Indians, recruited with promises of plunder. Then out-maneuvered and soundly defeated at Saratoga, Burgoyne surrendered his entire army to General Gates. Imagine Burgoyne and his troops, totally humiliated, marching as prisoners over primitive roads past amazed and staring crowds in all the little towns from Saratoga to Boston. And remember the historical context − soldiers were expected to and often did act with honor. The British officers were permitted to retain their hand arms, as a mark of respect. And the rebels only guarded this procession of thousands of prisoners with a small handful of troops. It would have been easy for the prisoners to escape and wreak havoc. But they made no attempt to do so − they had given their word.
Burgoyne waited for months in Boston with his troops, expecting that under the terms of the treaty they would all be shipped back to England, having given their word − parole − that they would never again take up arms against America. But Congress was hesitant, trusting the honor of these soldiers, but not believing that the British government would follow through with its obligations under the treaty. Burgoyne himself was allowed to return to England, having given his parole; and while in England, he was stll considered a "prisoner" subject to negotiations for prisoner exchange. His troops meanwhile were forced to march once again, this time from Boston to Virginia.
Burgoyne himself, while still offically a prisoner, was elected a Member of the House of Commons, where, having converted to republicanism, he repeatedly and eloquently pleaded the cause of American independence and peace.
Today's school textbook version of the American Revolution focuses on the activities of Washington in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. Mercy, in addition to covering that, devoted considerable space to events in the south, where General Gates, the hero of Saratoga, assumed command of the rebel forces, until his humiliating defeat at Camden. Other major players included General Nathaniel Greene, who took over from Gates, and General Lincoln. With the devastation in Georgia and the Carolinas, with the Loyalists playing a major role, and with the British increasingly using a strategy of terror − burning homes, destroying crops, and sometimes taking no prisioners, killing everyone − this often reads like the Civil War that raged there four-score years later.
As for the Battle of Yorktown, as described byMercy Warren, that wasn't really a battle at all. Cornwallis was maneuvered and pushed back with a series of skirmishes and was forced into an impossible geographic position by following orders he had received from General Clinton in New York. Then it became a contest of shovels. The British had just 400 shovels; the colonists far more. The colonists dug trenches parallel to the British earthwork defenses, moved up their cannon and bombarded. Then they dug channels leading closer and dug parallel again so they could move their guns up again. And so on, while the British, stuck on a narrow peninsula, blocked on the land by the combined American and French armies, and on the sea by the French fleet, were running out of food and ammunition. Despairing that his army would be totally destroyed before promised reinforcements arrived from Clinton in New York, Cornwallis surrendered. A few days later Clinton arrived by sea to find the Chesapeake firmly in the control of the French fleet and no British troops left on the ground. He had no choice but to turn back.
Why the delay in sending reinforcements? Washington finessed the British. He made Clinton believe that an attack on New York was imminent. Such an attack had been planned. Troops had been massed. Clinton's spies had intercepted messages from Washington to that effect. So Washington let Clinton continue to believe that. He left skeleton forces in nearby forts, with orders to playact as if they were preparing for an attack, while, in fact, unknown to the British, Washington marched south all the way to Virginia. Up until a few days before Washington reached Yorktown in Virginia, Clinton in New York was frantically preparing his defenses and sending messages by sea to Cornwallis ordering him to send some of his troops back to New York.
Another reason for the delay was the slow arrival of a fleet under Lord Digby with reinforcements from England. Mercy explains:
"Lord Digby, however, arrived at New York on September 29. One of the princes of the blood − Prince Henry, the Duke of Clarence − had taken this opportunity to visit America, probably with a view of sovereignty over a part or the whole of the conquered colonies. This was still anticipated at the Court of St. James; and perhaps, in the opinion of the royal parents, an American establishment might be very convenient for one of their numerous progeny."
School textbooks usually end the war at Yorktown. But nearly a third of Mercy's narrative covers the war after Yorktown, together with the negotiations that led to France, Spain, and Holland helping the American cause; and the battles fought by thoe allies in the Caribbean and elsewhere. Have you ever heard of the Spanish siege of Gibraltar as part of the American Revolution? The book also covers political wrangling in England; the negotiation of the Treaty of Paris; and the challenges and risks facing the fragile, fledgling republic.
Here we read the story of Henry Laurens, who was president of the Continental Congress at the time of passage of the Articles of Confederation. He was sent as plentipoteniary to negotiate a treaty of alliance with Holland, which had been, for many years, an ally of Britain. His ship was intercepted and overrun by the British. At the last moment he threw overboard a trunk containing the secret correspondence with sympathizers in Holland, his instructions and letters of introduction and authority. But a British sailor having seen him do so dove into the sea and caught hold of the trunk before it sank. Once the British realized who he was and what his mission was, they sent him to England, where he was imprisoned for several years in the Tower of London.
By coincidence, Lord Cornwallis was the hereditary constable/commander of the Tower of London. When Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown, Washington arranged that the terms of the surrender be dictated by Colonel Laurens, the son of Henry Laurens. So the commander of the Tower of London was forced to accept terms dictated by the son of a man held prisoner there.
Meanwhile, general devastation, destruction, and murder took place outside the realm of the well-known battles. New Bedford, Massachusetts, Fairfield, Connecticut, and countless other defenseless towns up and down the coast were attacked and destroyed by the British, in actions that generally go unmentioned in history books, remembered only on plaques in those little towns and sometimes by local tourist guides.
Mercy made it clear that this war impoverished and greatly disrupted the lives of nearly everyone, not just the soldiers. The drama didn't end when the last shot was fired. She emphasized the economic side of the devastation, the hyperinflation with soldiers and suppliers paid in paper money that then became worthless; and the ruthless activities of speculators, buying up promissory notes for practically nothing from patriots and then demanding and getting payment from Congress. It isn't a pretty picture. The brave, cold, hungry, sick soldiers mutinied more than once. Some were executed. Everyone didn't live happily ever after. But the Republic survived, stumbled forward, and tried to find the true path to a destiny that could change the world forever.
Our Oriental Heritage, 1935
The Life of Greece, 1939
Caesar and Christ, 1944
The Age of Faith, 1950
The Renaissance, 1953
The Reformation, 1957
The Age of Reason Begins. 1961
The Age of Louis XIV, 1963
The Age of Voltaire. 1965
Rousseau and Revolution. 1967
The Age of Napoleon, 1975
As the title says, Will and Ariel Durant tell a story − one whopping big story, from the beginnings of civilization up to the 19th century. This is not academic history. It is entertainment and information for the millions. There's no need to read it from the beginning: if you try to you'll almost certainly get bogged down and never finish. But you can read a chapter here and a chapter there, following the storyline threads that weave in and out from volume to volume or following your current interests. I got into him trying to read up on the background for Dumas' Three Musketeers.
The Durants tell this story from a point of view. That is natural with history, though academic-style histories often mask their bias. Durant doesn't pretend to be objective. He calls it as he sees it, with strong and well-expressed opinions. For me, much of the charm and delight of the work comes from those opinions and that excellent writing style. Gibbon, too, was very subjective, with a delightful style, and judgements that sum up individuals, countries and periods quite well. But Gibbon only dealt with a small subset of the vast topic that Durant took on.
Sometimes Durant sums up a long complex career with a few incisive sentences. For instance, "Charles V was the most impressive failure of his age, and even his virtues were sometimes unfortunate for mankind." Reformation, p. 642. Also, about Christian II of Denmark, "Christian fled to Flanders with his queen, the Protestant sister of Charles V; he made his peace with the Church, hoping to get a kingdom for a Mass; he was captured in a futile attempt to regain his throne, and for twenty-seven years he lived in the dungeons of Sonderborg with no companion but a half-wit Norwegian dwarf. The paths of glory led him with leisurely ignominy to the grave (1559)." Reformation, p. 628. There's much here to ignite the imagination of a novelist.
Sometimes the Durants succeed in capturing in just a few words the crux of a situation, for instance about Loyola, in his days as a soldier in Pamplona, "Four years he spent there, dreaming of glory and waking to routine." Reformation, p. 906.
Elsewhere, they render cursory and eloquent judgement, for instance, about John Calvin Reformation p. 490, "... we shall always find it hard to love the man who darkened the human soul with the most absurd and blasphemous conception of God in all the long and honored history of nonsense."
The books in this series were published over the course of 40 years 1935-1975, and some of the 11 volumes are over 1000 pages long. But this massive work has found its way into the hands of many people over the years, mainly as a perenniel new-member enticement for the Book-of-the-Month Club. That's how I got the first volumes, back in 1959. For many middle-class, baby-boomer Americans, these books were and remain the standard historical reference work.
But reading Durant today, I can't help but recognize how much has changed, with the dissolution of the Soviet empire and the collapse of Communism. It is only natural to tell a story from the perspective of today. Now today has changed, so the story feels dated. The Story of Civilization is still great entertainment, and a handy reference work for checking dates and names, but the overall thrust of the narrative no longer resounds with authority.
For the Durants, the events of previous centuries were important as causes or harbingers of what in their day looked like the ultimate conflict facing mankind. They highlighted every minor event and character with any possible connection to the historical development toward Communism and Capitalism. While the narrative ended with Napoleon, the implication was that the story led inevitably to the Cold War issues and conflicts that were the background, the context in which the Durants wrote. But today, the Cold War is a distant era, which we can only understand with research and effort − trying to reconstruct a perspective and a set of assumptions that permeated much of Western thinking for a generation, but that is now gone.
Today, there is no ultimate conflict. Hence we no longer see history in hegelian terms, with events unfolding in a single direction. We can now appreciate history as story, as the story of mankind, and it can come alive again − in many different tellings of many different episodes. I wonder what interesting and obscure events and people will now be resurrected from the junkheap of history.
Today, we can look back on the 20th century as a play in three acts − WW I, WW II, and Cold War − with a beginning, a middle and an end − rather than as the culmination of all history. Only when the Ice Age ended could anyone conceive that ice was not the ultimate state of nature, that there would be other trends and cycles − some short and some enormously long.
Before the end of the Cold War, reading history was like reading a story when you already knew the outcome. Yes, you could appreciate the details and the performance, but it all led to what you already knew. That was history seen through the colored lenses of the day's major issues.
What a relief it is to live now in a time when the major issues are unknown and unresolved − after one orthodoxy has collapsed and before the formation of a new one. Today, we have the opportunity to look at the past with fresh eyes, with new undefined and shifting filters. The past is alive − not yet killed by a new orthodoxy.
In other words, Durant wrote this history at a time when it looked like the conflict between Communism and Capitalism was the culmination of the history in the western world. This perspective was part of the filter used to select of what to tell about and how to tell it.
We see the world from the perspective of the times we have live through. Today's notions of the significance of events may differ from what was common in Durant's day − because the world has changed since then.
History changes over time. We always view the past teleogically, as if what came before is of significance mainly in so far as it led to the world becoming the way we see it today. As the present changes, the teleology changes. Hence the need for each generation to rewrite history in terms that make sense for it.
I read selections from Herodotus back in high school. So I thought I knew what his book − the world's first history book − was about. Then in reading and seeing The English Patient, with its many references to and quotes from Herodotus, I realized there was much that I had missed.
Finally reading the book from cover to cover, I discovered that the story that I thought was the main point − the invasions of Greece by Darius and Xerxes − takes up a very small part, at the end. Yes, that part is undeniably history, with dramatic scenes and quotable quotes. But most of Herodotus is anecdotal anthropology and travelogue and a delightful collection of rumors and traditions. The heart of the book isn't the history, it's the digressions. That's where you get the flavor of the times, a sense of what it might have been like to live in the fifth century B.C.
The physical territory of Greece was but a small part of the Greek world, long before Alexander conquered and hellenized. Considering how slow and difficult transportation was, the cosmopolitan nature of that Mediterranean world is remarkable. You see Greeks and Greek influence in Egypt, and Egyptian influence in Greece. In fact, it's difficult to say where one culture ends and another begins. There was little correlation between political boundaries and cultural boundaries.
The Greeks are portrayed as a semi-nomadic people, frequently taking to their ships en masse, abandoning one territory/city and going off to conquer and settle territory elsewhere else. They were like hermit crabs, shedding one shell and then taking over another. There were Greek settlements all along the coasts of Africa, Italy, and Spain, and on almost every island − not just in the Aegean and Ionian Seas, but also Sicily, Sardinia, and Corsica.
The oracles, particularly the oracle at Delphi, played a key role in determining when, where, and how populations moved. Anyone contemplating colonization consulted the oracles, and anyone involved in a territorial dispute brought on by colonization consulted the oracles as well. Greek peoples were constantly at war with one another and shifted alliances for the flimsiest of reasons − whether because of a bribe or because of a cultural insult, with obscure precedents in the distant, legendary past. But all trusted and respected the same oracles and feared the wrath of gods should they desecrate temples or holy places, regardless of whether it was a god that they themselves held in high esteem.
Some religious/cultural traditions were narrowly local and others were held in common. The Spartans, for instance, were repeatedly constrained from participating in key events because of local festivals/ceremonies which made little sense to other Greeks. For instance, they diidn't send troops to battle Darius' army at Marathon, despite the urgent pleas of the Athenians. But all respected the tradition of the Olympics − even with Xerxes horde advancing on them.
The Persians were not so totally foreign to the Greeks as the Darius/Xerxes passages in Herodotus would lead one to believe. There were many Greeks at the Persian court. Many Greek colonies and mainland cities were Persian allies, or simply considered the Persians as another player in their local deadly games of coup and conquest and colonization. It was not just a matter of right and wrong, democracy against the evil empire. The Persians invaded at the prompting and request of Greeks who wanted their help to advance their own personal ambitions. And even Athens seriously considered switching sides and allying with the Persians.
The Greeks often colonized voluntarily. A dissident faction would, with the full support of the local political leaders, gather people, ships, and supplies and go off to conquer or found a city somewhere else. Or facing the threat of conquest, an entire city might take to its ships and sail off over the horizon with only the scantiest notion of its destination, and create a new settlement at the first likely looking landfall.
Peoples conquered by the Persians were often forced to colonize. Darius would take soldiers captured in war or the entire populations of conquered cities and resettle them on lands hundreds of miles away. He would give the leaders of his conquered enemies estates and wealth in Persian territory, and he would resettle some of his own subjects on the newly conquered land. This approach and the Greek voluntary colonization led to a continuous cultural churning and cross-fertilization. I had thought of the ancient world, with its limitations of transportation, as consisting largely of isolated parochial communities − like rural mountain towns in 19th century America. Instead it was a vast mixing bowl − churning and churning again.
There were enormous cultural differences that persisted despite this churning. The traditions and beliefs with regard to marriage/sex and religion/death differed as widely from one city or small country to the next, as they did from island to island in the South Pacific in the 1920s. And on the fringes of the civilized world, where there was less churn, and about which far less was known first-hand, the differences were much greater and some of the common practices were much more brutal by today's standards. In particular, I was interested to read of a nation where the women as well as the men were warriors and a woman had to kill a man in battle before she had the right to marry.
When I think of the Mediterranean world in the 5th and 4th centuries BC, the only woman's name that comes to mind is Aspasia − the brilliant courtesan, who inspired Plato and others. I was surprised to read in Herodotus about Artemisia − ruler of a small nation allied with Xerxes. Apparently, the Greeks were scandalized to see a woman as a warrior/ruler, despite their legends of Amazons. But Artemisia was one of the most effective generals in Xerxes' vast army.
The most popular plays of Plautus and Terence focus on the role of slaves. In Prisoners of War by Plautus, the prisoners face a moral dilemma: because they were captured, they are now slaves, and it would be cheating to try to escape rather than to wait to be ransomed/bought back by their families. In The Rope by Plautus, the beautiful young girl that the hero is in love with is a slave, and he seeks to buy her from her owner. It then turns out that she had been born free but was kidnapped as a child and sold into slavery.
In The Brothers and Phormio by Terence, once again the love interest centers around slave girls, and the challenge is not that of winning hearts but rather bargaining with the procurers who own them.
While Plautus and Terence both borrowed their plots from Greek sources, they modified them in accordance with Roman slavery laws, and legal niceties are often key to the resolution.
So, from the context of the plays, what are those laws?
Slaves can have, earn, and save money. If they save enough, they can buy their own freedom. The procedure for an owner freeing a slave is simple and informal. You tap the slave with your hand, turn him around, and say "Be free, henceforth." But in addition to paying their master, they also have to pay a substantial tax to the Roman government to legalize the transaction.
Slaves can be trusted advisors, teachers, and companions of their owners, but they cannot plead a case. and their testimony is inadmissible in a court of law.
There is no obvious physical difference between slaves and freedmen. It's not a matter of race or even nationality. And record-keeping is sloppy, making it easy to kidnap children and sell them as slaves in other cities.
Prisoners of war become slaves. People in debt can sell themselves into slavery to pay off the debt. Criminals may be enslaved as punishment. And the children of slaves are slaves.
However one becomes a slave, once one is a slave, one is treated as property that can be bought and sold and that is totally at the mercy of the owner. Owners can do whatever they please with their slaves, including hiring them out as prostitutes. And there's no sense that there's anything morally wrong with the owners who act as procurers or the slaves who do their bidding. Prosperous young men who enjoy the services of slave girls sometimes fall in love with them and then seek to buy them from their owners. And stories recounting that are tales of sweet innocent love. Otherwise, these young men would marry as arranged by their parents − a financial transaction, with the bride's family paying a dowry. Buying a prostitute slave is portrayed as more romantic than an arranged marriage. And in the comic resolution, it may turn out that the slave girl is actually from a good family, having been kidnapped as a child, and that she's exactly the one that the parents would have wanted him to marry anyway.
Owners administer whatever punishment they please on their slaves; and the slaves have no recourse to the law, where their testimony is inadmissible. An owner can even execute a slave and need not have a reason for doing so.
But, surprisingly, slaves are shown as, for the most part, loyal to their masters. They typically accept this is their fate and their role, and they have no right to dispute it. They are bound by a code of honor; and except in the case when they have recently been made slaves by capture in war and have not yet gotten used to the idea, they don't seem inclined to try to escape, though little seems to be done to prevent them from doing so. Rather they focus their efforts on convincing their owners to free them or on trying to earn the money needed to buy their own freedom.
By the time of Petronius, the Republic is dead and many of its institutions have changed. But slavery remains and, in fact, seems even more important to society than it was before.
In the Satyricon, Trimalchio, the nouveau riche party-giver, is a former slave, as are many of his wealthy guests. One such guest came from the provinces and voluntarily sold himself into slavery, not because of debt, but because he knew that the prospects for advancement as a slave in Rome were far better than as an ordinary taxpayer in the provinces.
The world is in constant flux, and slavery is a transitional state. Ambitious slaves need to be prudent − to not anger their owners and bring on punishment, to save the allowance they are paid, and to earn additional money, so they can quickly accumulate enough to buy their freedom and pay the manumission tax. Once freed, they can rise socially as their wealth increases.
The conspicuous consumption of these wealthy former slaves is part of their world view − fortune is arbitrary, unstable, and as unpredictable as the acts of a despot like Tiberias, Caligula, or Nero. With no belief in gods or moral rules, it makes sense to play the game was well as you can play it. If you happen to be on top today, then eat, drink, and be merry. As for what happens after death, you just hope that it will be a continuation of this same kind of life, with the same kind of pleasures.
It's easy-come-easy-go both in terms of money and of life. Those who happen to do well today enjoy watching gladiatorial battles and staged wars fought to the death. Perhaps the pleasure of watching people suffer and die in the arena comes in part from the relief of knowing that, for today at least, it's not they themselves who are suffering and dying − for only chance separates them from the victims.
Traumatic events can change how an entire generation views the world, leaving a strong imprint long after. Such events can overturn previous assumptions and create new assumptions that get in the way of our recogniziing and adapting to later changes.
For instance, we came out of World War II with assumptions that 1) there are just wars; that good and evil are real and identifiable on a large scale, 2) people in crowds tend to act irrationally, more like animals than human beings, and 3) technological progress and hence economic progress is inevitable and predictable.
Then we came out of the Viet Nam War with a different set of assumptons. 1) Good and evil are interconneccted, and there are no just wars, 2) resources are becoming scarce, and techological progress is an illusion, that every step forward comes at a high price.
We persist in seeing the world from the perspective of the crisis that marked our youth. And we remain on the alert for a recurrence of a similar event. We are always preparing to fight the battles of the last war and hence set ourselves up to be surprsed by the next generation-defining event, which inevitably will be diifferent from the last one.
If you could travel to ancient times, but bring nothing with you but your knowledge, what that you know would be likely to make the biggest difference? Of course, if you remembered specific historical information, like who won what battles or even who won what events at what Olympics, you could make a fortune investing or betting. But what about technological knowledge?
What you know about computers would be useless, as would anything that depends on internal combustion or electricity.
In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court, a blacksmith from 1850 could do interesting things in King Arthurs Court, because the advances in technology that the Yankee takes advantage of could easily be transferred from the one time to the other. But the average person from today would be helpless in such a time shift because we depend so much on todays complex infrastructure.
But what about sail boats?
At the time of the Trojan War, the Greek forces were stuck for months at Aulis because the wind was blowing in the wrong direction, and their fixed-sail boats could only proceed under oar, which was not practical for long distances. At the height of the Roman Empire, the food supply for Rome depended on grain shipments from Egypt. And the prevailing winds in the Mediterranean made it so fixed-sail ships could only transport that grain for six months of the year. And in crucial sea battles, like Actium, the direction of the wind made a decisive difference.
A simple little sailboat, like the ones I see on the Charles River, maneuvering every which way regardless of the direction of the wind, could have revolutionized travel, commerce, and war in ancient times.
Learn how to make such a sailboat from scratch, and youll be ready when the next twist in the fabric of time takes you to ancient Greece or Rome.
But this theory is belied by the felucca, a traditional sailboat with a single easily maneuverable sail. Feluccas are common today on the Nile, and they date back to ancient times. Today's feluccas are designed for sailing in shallow water. They don't have a keel but rather a centre plate that can be raised over sandbars. It's hard to imagine why in ancient times no one built sea-going vessels based on a similar design. That's as puzzling as the Aztecs making toys with wheels but not building wagons and carriages and wheelbarrows to do real work.
Is it possible to accurately extrapolate from the shapes of letters characteristics of the culture that used those letters? Such an endeavor seems similar to archaeologists extrapolating a complete creature from a tooth or a fragment of bone.
The Hebrew alphabet evolved over centuries. The following speculations are based on the version of the alphabet used to record the Torah − first five books of the Bible.
1. None of the letters resemble shapes found in nature. Some other ancient written languages such as Chinese and Egyptian evolved from pictograms (stylized drawings that stood for complete words). The Hebrew alphabet appears to have been phonetic in its origins. This seems natural for a culture that considered it religiously unacceptable to represent people and animals in statuary or paintings, there being a fine line between a graven image which is an object of worship and an artistic rendering for aesthetic appreciation.
2. Hebrew did not include vowels. The reader needed to determine which vowel to insert in order to pronounce a word aloud. The letters were both phonetic and mnemonic. They were meant to help the initiated to remember and recite long texts. A purely phonetic alphabet − with both consonants and vowels − could readily be used to represent contemporary speech and could be read by many people. An alphabet without vowels makes it difficult to represent newly coined words, and also makes it difficult for the general public to learn to read. This alphabet was not meant for the masses. Rather it was the preserve of a special class of scholars, whose main intent was to read and interpret the sacred texts and to recite them for the public.
3. One would expect a written language to evolve from short lists, inventories, ritual formulas, and prayers to longer compositions. The Hebrew written language appears to have been created to preserve a large pre-existing text − the Torah. In other words, I speculate that the Torah came first and the alphabet second; that the alphabet was created to preserve the sacred text, which otherwise would have been subject to corruption as an oral tradition.
4. A written language intended for scrolls rather than monuments is appropriate for a nomadic people.
5. A complex set of religious commandments helps to define and set apart one nomadic people from neighboring nomadic peoples, who are racially identical. In other words, the Torah helped define the Hebrew people.
6. Kings, pharaohs, and emperors create their own laws and publish them to make them known and obeyed; and in ancient times publication meant display in public places, the most significant matters being engraved in stone. Such rulers could change those laws when and how they wished. Hebrew law was voluminous and complex, only read and understood by a special class of scholars. The laws were subject to debate and interpretation but the underlying texts never changed.
When we see history repeat itself disastrously within the same culture, we presume that people failed to learn from the lessons of the past. And when we see similar disastrous events unfold in a different cultures, we look for contacts between the cultures, as if the penchant for mass self-destructive behavior were a contagious disease; and if there had been no contact, the copycat events would not have occurred.
But sometimes similar outlandish and awful events occur independently, in cultures that had no prior contact. Analysis of such incidents might reveal universal principles of human nature − not commonality of dreams and neuroses due to the collective unconscious, but rather predictable rules of human behavior that could and should guide international relations and public policy.
One such constellation of horrendous events occurred during the late 19th century, in South Africa, the Sudan, the American West, and China. The Zulus in the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879, the rebel forces of the Mahdi in 1881-1882, the Ghost Dancers 1888-1892, and the Boxers in 1897-1901 were all native peoples who rose up against far more powerful and technologically advanced foreigners. The native culture was about to be obliterated economically as well as militarily. Their traditional way of life was no longer viable. Everything they had believed in was being disproved daily in their interactions with the foreigners, who were already in control. The situation was hopeless. Then spontaneously, in all four unconnected instances, mobs of natives, with or without leaders, attacked the foreigners, believing that supernatural salvation was imminent and that by ritual and magic they could make themselves invulnerable to the bullets of the foreigners.
The letter began:
"Dear Sir, Although I know you only from good references of your honesty, my sad situation compels me to reveal to you an important affair in which you can procure a modest fortune, saving at the same time that of my darling daughter."
Dated April 3, 1914, the letter was apparently sent by one Serge Solovieff, an embezzler and murderer in prison in Spain, to my great-uncle Charles Seltzer, who was in his late 20s at that time, living in Philadelphia, and just starting his career as an architect.
I found the letter and a related newspaper clipping in a box of my great-uncle Charlie's' belongings when he died back in 1970. I was intrigued by the mystery implied by the words.
The clipping said that Solovieff, a banker in St. Petersburg, had embezzled over five million rubles, murdered a compatriot in Spain, been apprehended in London and extradited to Spain. The money was still missing. There was no date on the clipping, but the item on the reverse side was a review of an issue of the London Quarterly dealing with the centenary of Tennyson's birth in 1909. It is hard to imagine reviewing a magazine long after it was published, but the letter was dated 1914 − five years later.
Why would anyone keep a clipping from an English newspaper for five years in a prison in Spain, and then send it to a total stranger in the U.S., with a letter asking for help? Was this a hoax that someone tried to play on my great-uncle? What was there to gain?
There are several different ways that the surname could be transliterated from the Cyrillic alphabet: Solovieff, Soloviev, and Solovyov are all the same name, the equivalent of Mr. Nightingale. There was a famous Russian philosopher Vladimir Solovyov, who died around 1900 and who wrote some interesting and provocative fiction and poetry. He had a nephew named Sergei who was also a poet and who was alive at the time these letters were written. But that Sergei Solovyov was not a banker and did not end up in jail in Spain. Back then, before the Internet, my research was limited to what I could find in newspapers that had been preserved in microfilm. I soon reached a dead end.
Thirty years later, when the Internet was available, I included the text of the letter and of the clipping in an article which I posted at my Web site − then samizdat.com, now seltzerbooks.com. The page got included in search engine indexes and people looking for the name Serge Solovieff or phrases in the letter or in the clipping found my page and contacted me. This is a random research technique that I call flypaper − posting content on the Web so people with similar interests will find you and bring you the information you need, when there is no way that you could actively find the information yourself.
As a result of that posting, I was contacted by half a dozen people who possess identical or nearly identical letters and clippings that were addressed to their relatives just before or during World War I. And one of them has a second letter as well. Her great-uncle took the bait and sent a cable to Spain back in 1913, and received back an 11-page letter, a masterpiece of persuasive deception, with complete details on how to get to Spain and what to do there to retrieve a fortune.
I told this story to an old friend, Ashley Grayson, and he let me know that variations on this scam, popularly known as The Spanish Prisoner have been around for a long time. He pointed me to the movie The Spanish Prisoner, written by David Mamet and starring Campbell Scott, Ben Gazzara, and Steve Martin. That movie, which portrays an elaborate confidence game, includes the following passage, which is the source of its title: "It's an interesting setup, Mr. Ross. It's the oldest confidence game on the books. The Spanish Prisoner... Fellow says, he and his sister, wealthy refugees, left a fortune in the Home Country. He got out. The girl and the money are stuck in Spain. Here is her beautiful portrait. And he needs money to get her and the fortune out. Man who supplies the money gets the fortune and the girl. Oldest con in the world."
Ashley also noted that this scam is a relative of the Nigerian letter, an Internet-based scam. I receive an average of 2 variants of the Nigerian letter every day. My email inbox seems to be a magnet for such messages. There's a detailed explanation at http://home.rica.net/alphae/419coal/ In brief:
"The Scam operates as follows: the target receives an unsolicited fax, email, or letter concerning Nigeria containing either a money laundering or other illegal proposal or you may receive a Legal and Legitimate business proposal by normal means. The common variations on the Scam include 'overinvoiced' or 'double invoiced' oil or other supply and service contracts where your Bad Guys want to get the overage out of Nigeria; crude oil and other commodity deals; a 'bequest' left you in a will; and 'money cleaning' where your Bad Guy has a lot of currency that needs to be 'chemically cleaned' before it can be used, and he needs the cost of the chemicals. Or the victim will just be stiffed on a legitimate goods or services contract... the variations are very creative and virtually endless."
I have six instances, with almost identical introductory articles and clippings but with different handwriting on all of them and with two different names for the sender. These letters range in dates from 1911 to 1914. They are sent to individuals from Maryland to Washington State, who apparently had nothing in common and apparently had no previous connections with Spain. I have no clues as to how the victims were chosen or how the senders got their addresses.
My best guess is that hundreds, if not thousands of these letters were sent to random recipients, like modern email spam, and that enough of these recipients took the bait to make this a profitable venture − one to be tried again and again and to be passed along from one schemer to another. Impediments to trans-Atlantic travel brought on by World War I may have brought it to an end. In any case, it's probable that the perpetrators were never caught.
I wouldn't be surprised if there were similar scams in Roman times. The vendors outside the Colloseum in Rome today are probably very much like the vendors who preyed on tourists at the same spot 2000 years ago. And there were probably sketch artists at the Pyramids in ancient times drawing pictures of tourists on camelback just as their descendants do with cameras today. To me the commonality and continuity of human vulnerability to scammers and peddlers is reassuring − it reinforces feelings of community with humanity through the ages.
When you are tired and frustrated and you know that the hassles you are going through are unnecessary, instead of venting or steaming, come up with a solution. Every hassle you face is a million-dollar business opportunity.
Have you ever been sitting on a toilet in an airplane bathroom when the captain says turbulence is coming and everybody should fasten their seatbelts? Have you ever seen a seatbelt in an airplane bathroom? Why not? What are the possible issues and how would you deal with them?
Have you ever at a baggage carousel in an airport realized that your suitcase has been going round and round, and you could have left long ago if you had quickly identified it? I used to have a similar problem in large parking garages, forgettiing where I had left my car and walking up and down hoping to spot it. Now that problem is solved with a button on my electronic key that triggers a beeping noise from my car. Why not do the same for a suitcase, generating a distinctive sound, perhaps even saying my name?
Have you ever been embarrassed overhearing personal matters being discussed or unseemly language being used at a nearby table? Or have you ever wanted to have a private conversation, not be overheard by restaurant neighbors? When you are at home, you might use a white-noise generator to masks sounds from your neighbor's apartment, or to mask the sounds from your own apartment so your neighbors don't hear them. Why not have a white-noise generator at every table of a restaurant or have such generators available for diners at a nominal rental cost?
People who wear electronic hearing aids have the option of turning down the volume or turning them off to avoid having to hear noises or words they'd prefer not to hear, or so they can read and concentrate without distractions. People with normal hearing, can dampen sound with earplugs. But it's easy to imagine silence aids − electronic devices as small and unobrusive as hearing aids that block or negate sound, far more effectively than earplugs.
People on house arrest or awaiting trial or on probation often have to wear electronic ankle bracelets that trigger when the wearer goes outside the allowed area. For greater flexibility in the level of virtual imprisonment a court could impose, why not add to the ankle bracelet the ability to jam electronic signals, to prevent the wearer from using a cell phone or connecting to the Internet.
With heightened risk of terrorist attacks, security checks at airports are taking longer and longer. Today, you have to remove everything from your pockets. You have to remove your coat, your belt, your shoes. Then you go through a full body scan. And the ante keeps going up. Why not start a low-cost, fast-check airline with all passengers travelling with no baggage and no clothes? Or have a special fast-check class of passengers who leave their clothes in the airport, wear disposable gowns on the plane, and rent clothes at the destination, preordered online.
Devices are now available that reportedly do an excellent job of translating spoken speech and generating voice output, making it possible for people who speak different languages to converse naturally. With the current pace of technology development similar capability should soon be available as a smart phone app. Why not develop an app that supplements that capability by recognizng and interpreting culture-dependent body language?
Most people look much better some times than other times. Under stress or when self-conscious, their facial muscles distort their faces. Some people go to great lengths, with face lifts and cosmetics, to improve their looks. But they could probably get better results with improved facial muscle tone and better control of their facial muscles. So why not develop an app that prompts the user to exercise facial muscles and learn how to consciously control them?
Sometimes loading and unloading airline passengers takes 15-30 minutes, with everyone going in and out of one door. Large aircraft typically have a door at the back as well as the front, but only the front door gets connected to the movable passageway that leads to and from the terminal building. An airport that allowed two ways in and out instead of one would be able to cut boarding/unboarding times, pleasing time-conscious passengers and making it possible for the airport to handle more flights with the same facilities.
Graffiti is everywhere. Removing it or painting over it is a significant expense. And as soon as you get rid of it, it's replaced by more. I could imagine corporations hiring graffiti artists to embed corporate logos in their designs and to police their own work to make sure the logos stay in tact.
Typically, at a Chinese or Japanese restaurant you are given chop sticks to eat your rice and your main course, and a plastic spoon for your soup. Why not make hollow chop sticks that can double as straws?
parking meter that is also a charging station for electric cars.
While you are
parked, your car recharges. You pay for parking and also pay for
the power. Parking
garages could also use such devices. The availabliity of such
facilities would make
it much more convenient to use electric cars. You could recharge
in many places
instead of a few.
In double-blind studies, where both groups believe they are receiving an experimental medication but one group is not, the group receiving the harmless substance typically shows measurable improvement, sometimes almost as much improvement as the people getting the real thing. Apparently, if we think we'll get better, we get better, or at least the symptoms subside. So why not sell a placebo pill? Label it and advertse it making no clams that it is real medicine. Clearly indicate that this will not cure anything. But explain that it may provide fast relief for symptoms if you believe that it will give you relief.
Have you ever been late for work because the noise of your air conditioner masked the sound of your alarm clock? Why not build alarm clock features into air conditioners? When the designated time arrives, the air conditioner shuts off and an alarm sounds?
Car recalls are often ineffective because people with used cars never hear about them and people who do hear about them ignore them, even when safety is involved. The solution seems obvious. Most states require annual car inspections. Why not feed the recall data into the state inspection systems. Then when you go to get a new inspection sticker, you would get information about recalls related to your vehicle and the inspectors could check to see if recall fixes have been done. Also, the states and/or the federal government could mandate that certain safety-related changes must be made for a car to pass inspection.
Obituary notices are almost always printed in hard-to-read type, smaller than anything else in the newspaper. Considering that the elderly, many of who have failing eyesight, frequently consult that part of the paper, that policy seems inconsiderate, even brutal. Newpapers could and should print death notices in larger type than the rest of the paper to make the information accessible by those who most need and want to read them.
In areas where
snow emergencies are common, car rental companes are missing a
opportunity. When customers rent cars in such an area in the
winter, they should
each receive a winter emergency package including:
1) details on where in this particular car you can find windshield wipers, defrosters, and anything else that might be useful in those circumstances
2) a windshield scraper
3) instructions on how to return the car after hours, in case of a snow emergency
4) a number to call if you drop off your car after hours due to a weather emergency so you can get a ride home from someone from the rental office
5) a refund plan to give customers credit if a rental is cut short by bad weather and/or an option to keep the car for an extra day or more, however long the official snow emergency lasts, at no extra cost so they can finish what they were doing and return the car when it is safe to drive.
Im being bombarded with messages about my 50th college reunion. It strikes me as strange that reunions and continuing communication with alums are tied to the year of graduation. When I think of my school experiences, I think more of people in the class before and the class after, as well as people who never graduated. I think of people who were in the same major, or who took some of the same courses, or who were involved in some of the same activities. There are very few people from my class that I have any desire to see again, but there are many other people who were around when I was there who I would like to get back in touch with.
High schools and colleges should organize their communications and reunions in terms of schoolmates rather than classmates − people who attended school at the same time, rather than people in a single class.
Takis, a Greek immigrant, owned a Shell franchise in West Roxbury. Before I met him, I never paid attention to where I bought gas or who sold it to me. It was a commodity, and the people who did the pumping or handled the cash register were faceless. You might feel loyalty to a church or to an Elks Club, but one gas station was the same as another.
During the oil boycott of 1973, gas became scarce. When we needed gas, my wife and I took turns waiting in line for hours, and some times, despite the wait, got nothing. One day my wife got in line at Takis Shell, and the owner came out and told her, "You are a regular customer. You are special. We take care of you." We hadn't been regular customers before. But we were ever after that, benefiting from his special treatment during the boycott, and going back to his station and only his station for nearly 30 years.
When other gas stations automated so customers could pay at the pump and never see or talk to anyone, Takis taped over the credit card slots so you had to walk into his office to do the transaction. He knew you by name, talked about himself and his family and asked about you and your family; and he followed up on conversational details from one time to the next. Some times his wife or his son was behind the cash register. You weren't just buying gas; you were touching base with old friends. While in the office, often you bought snacks or you asked for advice about a strange noise your car was making. And if your car needed fixing that was where you took it for repair. Although you could have spread your buying power anonymously among a dozen local gas stations, you concentrated all your purchases there; and, without even considering price, you felt you benefited from this business relationship. Going to this gas station was like going to the general store a hundred years ago − it was both social and business.
About 15 years ago, Shell put Takis out of business. Apparently, Shell decided to shut down franchises and instead to sell through company-owned stations. A few days before Takis turned over ownership, a reporter from the local newspaper was talking to him in his office when I happened to walk in. Takis pointed to me as an example of a loyal customer. And talking to the reporter, I realized how much I had learned from Takis over the years and had put into practice in my Web-based business. In the short run, automation may save you time and money, but in the long run it could cost you dearly − making your operation the same as many others, putting you at the mercy of larger companies that sooner or later will price you out of business. It's well worth the time and trouble to talk to customers, to get to know them, to go out of your way for them. And if there's any kind of a glitch so you need to spend more time, that's an additional opportunity to build a relationship. The more what you have to sell is perceived as a commodity, the more important it is to build relationships with customers, to give them good reasons, both tangible and intangible for coming back for more.
Today's company-owned station uses pay-at-the-pump automation. The air pump, which used to be free to all, is coin-operated. They do car washes, but handle no repairs, not even flat tires. I don't know the people who run it. I never go there. It looks like few people do. I miss Takis.
I can imagine writing a science fiction story that includes a pain simulator. In the story, this device was developed for lesbian couples who were giving birth, where the non-pregnant partner wanted to share the experience of giving birth. Later, the product would have been adopted by heterosexual couples, to give the husband an opportunity to share the birth experience. Using this invention, the partner would feel the same kind of pain and the same intensity of pain, in the same regions of the body as the person who is feeling it naturally. The simulator could also serve as part of treatment for pain because the sympathy and togetherness of others helps ease the stress of someone in real pain.
Imagine bears dolls dressed to look like grandparents. Such dolls would help kids get used to hugging and loving grandparents. It would be natural for grandparents to give such bears to their grandchildren; and for parents to give them as well. It would be natural to launch and promote such a product around Grandparent Day − September 13.
As a present for my first grandchild, Adela, when she was two years old, I assembled an alphabet book, with pictures of family members, friends, toys, etc. The family was the extended family, as a reminder of cousins, aunts, and uncles who she saw rarely because they lived far away. The result was a time-capsule keepsake, a snapshot of the extended family of a point in time.
I used one picture of one person per page and at least one page for each letter of the alphabet. But the number of pages per letter was unlimited, so no one was left out because a letter was taken.
The photos were taken with a digital camera. I used Word to make the pages. Starting with a blank page, I would insert the picture, then drag at the corner of the picture to expand it to fill the available space. I typed the text at the bottom of the page in large type. I printed it in color on ordinary copy paper.
I put all the pages in a 3-ring binder. But instead of punching holes in the paper, I inserted each into an Avery Sheet Protector − see-through plastic containers the same size as the paper, with 3 holes in the plastic. That makes the pages more durable and less likely to be ripped out in the hands of a two-year-old.
Why does every bank have to have dozens, hundreds, even thousands of branch offices? From an ATM, you can do business with many different banks. Some of those ATMs are in those branch offices. Others sit in public places and are run by independent companies. Why not change banking regulations to allow independent agencies to handle all manner of consumer banking services for many different banks, obviating the need for the wasteful multplication of single-bank branches.
Such agencies could also provide value-added services that no one provides today. Insurance agencies handle transactions with a variety of different insurance companies, and because of their relationship with those companies and their knowledge of their offerings, those agencies can provide advice on which is the best one for you for each of your different insurance needs, and you can get X from one and Y from another and Z from yet another, but only have to deal with a single agent.
Similarly, banking agencies could make it easy for you to do different pieces of your banking with different banks, and yet have a single-point access all those accounts, both face-to-face with a human agent/teller, and also online.
In Boston, when the John Hancock Tower was erected near the Prudential Tower, as an unintended consequence, wind patterns changed and high winds blew out heavy windows from upper stories of the Hancock.
With that in mind, I wonder if it is possible to deliberately change wind patterns and intensify wind flow by building walls.
For instance, when building an array of electricity-generating windmills in an open field, why not build walls to the side, beginning perpendicular to the prevailing wind and angling inward, funnel-like, creating wind-tunnel effects, intensifying the wind and focusing it on the blades of the windmills. Perhaps the walls could be movable as well, so they could be adjusted to maximize the effect of the wind different times of the year and of the day.
China, Japan, India, and the US are all now racing to put men on the moon. Unlike the first time around, the objective appears to be to establish permanent bases. That raises the question of how well man can cope long-term in the Moons reduced gravity. Man evolved on Earth to live in Earth gravity. A long-term change in gravity could lead to serious problems related to bone mass, muscle tone, and the function of internal organs.
The Moons gravity is about 1/6 that of Earth. So someone who weighs 180 lbs. on Earth would weigh just 30 lbs. on the Moon.
In science fiction, the usual solution for weightlessness is magnetic boots or having space ships and space stations spin, so centripetal force can substitute for gravity. But those solutions would not make sense on the surface of the Moon.
Perhaps a low-tech workaround would work. Why not just add weight? For instance, a 180 lb. astronaut could wear a suit weighing 900 lbs., bringing his/her total weight to 1080 lbs. in terms of Earth gravity, and 180 lbs. on the Moon.
The extra weight need not be ballast, just useless dead weight. Rather it could include oxygen, water, and food; plus armor to protect against such hazards as tiny meteors, high-speed space debris, cosmic rays, etc.; and high-tech gear that extends a persons capabilities.
Todays cigarette filters are on the receiving end between the cigarette and the mouth. But much of the bad effects of smoking to the smoker and to those around are from the smoke, which comes out the other end.
So why not design a filter for the smoking end? This could be a reusable plastic or metal gadget you put over the cigarette. It would allow air to enter so the tobacco could burn. And it would filter out harmful substances before releasing smoke to the air. Such a device could eliminate the odor of smoke as well. And it could also shut down after a period of inactivity, extinguishing the burning, as a way to prevent fires.
If such gadgets existed, it would make sense to allow people who use them to smoke in public places, since their use would eliminate the danger and even the odor of second-hand smoke.
In TV mystery shows that focus on crime and forensic evidence, medical examiners sometimes exhume bodies to doublecheck the identity of the deceased; and sometimes their efforts at identificaton are stymied by the fact that the body was cremated.
Why not take a hair from everyone who dies, and securely store that hair in case the need ever arises to test the DNA? Thats a non-invasive procedure far less than embalming or applying cosmetics to the corpse. And it could obviate the need for costly and emotion-wrenching exhumation in the future.
As for privacy concerns, the person is dead. And the DNA test is only performed if ordered by a judge when there is reasonable cause.
Objections? Perhaps some would see this as a first step toward a national identity system based on DNA tests performed on newborns. But would that be bad?
We need to identify and foster the development of individuals with talent for finding unusual, yet workable, solutions to practical problems.
I believe that psychologists should use videogames to test intelligence. And rather than write new videogames, they should analyze current, popular games to determine the correlation between certain aspects of intelligence and performance levels in the games. Todays kids are far more comfortable with playing these games than with performing the pencil-and-paper or face-to-face tests that were designed generations ago as a way to measure IQ. And games could be selected that recognize and reward out-of-the-box thinking.
Not that we should abandon the old tests, but rather we should add these new ways of measuring, as a way to spot problems and identify talent that otherwise might be overlooked.
There are medications to help people with medical conditions that lead to sudden, intense urinary urges and leakage. But there does not seem to be anything available for ordinary people who find themsselves in unusual circumstances that mke it awkward, difficult, or impossible to urinate.
There is a need for a pill that temporarily reduces the urge to urinate. Take it before going to a perforance or a movie theater. Take it before you participate in a sporting event.Take it when you might be caught for hours in a traffic jam.
I only knew these people briefly and in a single aspect of their lives, but their every action seemed to indicate focus, intensity, consistency, and dedication. They were proud of what they did, and how they did it showed who they were.
Bob was foreman at Econotool, a machine shop in the suburbs of Philadelphia. I worked there a couple of summers back when I was in college, more than 50 years ago. They made cutting tools which were resold by Black and Decker. They taught me a few simple repetitive tasks. I silver-soldered carbide blades to steel shanks, keeping a close watch on temperature and time. I also ground those carbide blades on a diamond wheel, using a rig designed to sharpen them at the specified cutting angle. It was easy to clamp the raw piece into position and grind away. But it was difficult to do this hundreds of times a day and give it your full attention − to not fall half-asleep with boredom and blunder disastrously.
Bob knew everything there was to know about the machines I was working on and all the other machines in the plant. He could clean them and fix them. Given a blueprint, he could adjust them, set them up, and make rigs so they would turn out quality product repeatedly. If he didn't have a replacement part, he could machine that part from scrap metal; and he enjoyed such unexpected challenges.
This was blue collar work, but he wore a white shirt − a brightly clean shirt that he wore proudly. He worked hard, but at the end of the day that shirt was always as clean as at the beginning. He worked with no waste movements, no spills, no accidents − all from unremitting dedication to what he did.
He reminded me of a craftsman in the Middle Ages whose craft was his identity and became his name, like Cooper or Smith, who conscientiously devoted his full attention to his work, day after day. From the way he worked, you knew he believed that what he did mattered, that doing it well meant that his life mattered. Money was secondary. His work was his religion. He handled his tools and his machinery with the respect and pride of a priest serving mass.
The Postal Clerk
Jack, now retired, was a clerk at the Post Office in West Roxbury, MA for 30 years. He approached his job with a level of seriousness and respect similar to the foreman at Econotool. He knew every postal regulation by word and in spirit. When a question arose, his fellow clerks turned first to him, not the book. When a customer had a question or misunderstood the options and was about to make a costly decision, Jack explained the rules and also the practical aspects of how the mail is handled, without talking down. You got a mini-lesson on the Postal Service and also on life, from someone who could have been a great teacher but who took pride in being a great postal clerk.
He didn't just sell you stamps and make sure you had filled out the right paperwork for shipping packages overseas or for applying for passports. While doing everything that needed to be done as efficiently as it could be done, he would smile and give you a tidbit of information or advice for the future; and he'd often set in motion some of the many elaborate gadgets he had on display in his work area. These were liquid mind-mystifiers − turn them upside down and bubbles moved in random but beautiful patterns, confined but yet fee, and demanding your attention.
I hope that in retirement he still finds ways to take pleasure and in and pride from the necessary details of life. I miss him.
Working in an office, we have to deal with the expectations of bosses and co-workers. Our social and physical environments provide reminders of what needs to be done and when to do it.
Working at home, alone, it's easy to procrastinate or to shuffle from one project to another, not making substantial progress on any of them. It sometimes takes an effort to motivate ourselves to get things done on time.
I use creative procrastination to overcome that difficulty.
At any given moment there are dozens of things that I could and should be doing. I make a list of them. I prioritize the items. I keep adding to that list.
Many times, the task that is most important to work on is something I don't want to do right now. I'd rather do something else. So I work on that something else. It's also on the list, and I'll have to do it sooner later.
While doing that something else, I keep remembering the task I put off that I really should be doing. That feeling of guilt generates energy, motivating me to do the other task faster and better.
Sometimes the high priority task I'm avoiding is something that I can't put off any longer. I need to start it pronto or I won't be able to get it done on time and that failure could have serious consequences. In that case, I need to think of another task that I will eventuallly need to do and that is even more undesirable than the high priority one. I try to convince myself that that task is important and urgent. The more I think about the substitute task, the more the priority one doesn't seem so bad; and I get to work on the priority one to put off having to do the substitute task.
Over time, we need to discover our natural rhythm, categorizing the things we need to do on a regular basis, and getting a feel for how often we get the urge to do such things. For instance, Web site updates, paying bills and keeping track of finances, cleaning the house or yard, and doing creative work. For me, the cycle is about a week. If I try to pay bills and balance my check book on a day when I feel like working on a creative project, that's like pushing rocks uphill. Likewise, working on a creative project when my mind would prefer the relaxing tedium of a repetitive task, is laborious and unproductive. So I try to do the things I need to do when it feels natural to do them, modulating that with creative procrastination, as described above.
Once we find our natural rhythm, we need to schedule, loosely. For instance, say my rhythm is a week or two and one of the chores is finances. In that case, I would aim to deal with finances on the same day every week and try to make that a habit. But if the right mood isn't there that day or something else comes up, I don't worry about it. Over the course of a week or two, I should be able to cover what needs to be covered, by just following my natural inclinations. And since I'm doing this work when I'm in the right frame of mind, I'm able to work faster and better.
If there is some regularly recurring task that needs to get done but that I never have the urge to do it, even using creative procrastination; then I try to make adjustments so it's no longer necessary or else hire someone else to do it. I am who I am. Why fight it?
When I worked alone at home for my ebook publishing company, I had no boss, no colleagues. My to-do list was growing out of control. Every day it got longer and more daunting. There was no way I could keep pace, much less catch up. The list was intended as a way for me to prioritize and get organized, but it became a chore in and of itself.
Then I shifted from to-do list to done list, and that change made a big difference in my state of mind and productivity.
My done list recorded what I actually did. Each day was on a separate page. I categorized what I did into four main areas: family, maintenance, business, and personal. And each of those categories had subcategories. For instance, maintenance included health, food, and house. Personal included writing, reading, languages, TV, and other entertainment.
Before, time seemed to disappear. The day would end and I would wonder how I managed to waste so much time. My focus would be on all the to-do list tasks that I hadnt gotten to. With my done list, I looked back and saw what I had accomplished and enjoyed. And the categories gave me a feel for what I actually did with my time, showing my patterns, making sense out of what seemed to be chaos.
Of course, I still kept a tickler/reminder list and a short, manageable list of things I planned and expected to do that day. But the focus was on the done list. It felt good adding a new item to the done list.
While my circumstaces are different now, I still keep a done list. And now I can add writing this lense to that list.
Step One - Get Moving
Do one small thing a day that could eventually help you make your life a little better. Don't try to come up with a master plan. Don't try to make sense of everything. Just focus on small activities that will move you forward. At some point, it might dawn on you that these actions are taking you in a particular direction. Then you may make course corrections to advance more quickly. But first get moving.
Step Two - Exer-Work
As you get older, everything becomes harder and takes longer. You fight the slowing of the body with efforts of the mind to motivate and energize yourself, so you can feel as if you're making progress. But increasingly you need physical exercise for health, which leads to a time crunch − how can you spend an hour a day walking or jogging when there isn't enough time in the day to do what you want and need to do?
To deal with this problem, I categorized my typical activities as maintenance, relaxation, exercise, or progress, and kept track of when I did what. Then I gradually modified my relaxation and maintenance activities so they did double duty, as exercise or progress. Remember, God invented snow to shovel, grass to cut, and leaves to rake so you would be motivated to exercise. He also created dogs so you'd have good reason to walk.
Writing is part of who I am and what I do. So I begin working on a project before going out to exercise. Then ideas occur to me naturally as I walk or jog. I bring along a notebook. And instead of the exercise being a boring chore, I enjoy it; and by the time I get home, I'm anxious to start writing again.
Step Three - You Don't Need to Finish Everything at Once
Today's computers are digital. They are based on only two possibilities − yes or no, on or off. But people are by nature analog, with a continuous range of possibilities. For us, little changes matter because they accumulate and take us where we want to go a little bit at a time.
When I was young, I looked for ways to save steps, to conserve energy. I sought the most efficient ways to do things so I could accomplish more. In middle age, I went out of my way to take more steps. I ran up and down stairs a for the exercise, and I exercised with no purpose other than to burn fat. Now in old age, once again I try to save steps, to conserve energy, seeking the most efficient ways to do things.
What were the implications of this changing perspective on public policy and the environment when baby boomers like me moved from young to middle age? And what are the implications now that we are in old age?
When I was four years old, my parents gave me ten cents a week as an allowance, and I could walk to the corner drug store and buy what I wanted.
The big choice back then was between tangible objects and ephemeral experiences. If I bought plastic cowboys and Indians, I could play with them over and over. And if I bought comic books, I could read them over and over. And in either case I could share or trade them with friends.
If instead, I bought penny candy or ice cream, while the experience would be delightful, it wouldn't last. The act of enjoying it would destroy it. I would end up with nothing.
Despite temptation, I almost never opted for candy or ice cream.
When my kids were young, I hoped that they would enjoy the toys and comic books that I had enjoyed at their age. But they showed little interest in the old stuff, caught up as they were in the new objects of popular culture that they and their friends saw advertised.
Now I value experiences. The boxes of plastic cowboys and Indians and of comic books just take up space. They are a burden to me, and, after I go, they will be considered trash. At this stage of my life, I want to enjoy the moment rather than accumulate tangible goods. I value ephemeral beauty and ephemeral pleasure, and memories of such moments.
written from 1995 in West Roxbury, MA to May 202o in Milford, CT